As NEPA’s Retail Landscape Gets More Crowded, It’s Reasonable To Ask Who’s Being Served

January 20, 2019

Do you know your rewards number, sir?

No, young man behind the counter, but that’s exactly why I carry these cards around with me, to ensure a seamless cruise through the checkout line. Sitting on a fattened-up wallet is uncomfortable, but that card never forgets those random digits.

Proudly, I shuffle through my wallet, sort through the spent gift cards and the old receipts from the airport newsstand and find what I’m looking for. The Marshalls rewards card, scratched up from years of grinding in and out of its wallet home between the emergency Visa and the vintage Blockbuster Video membership card.

Here you go, I say, extending the card across the counter.

“Sir,” he says sheepishly, allowing it to dangle between my index finger and thumb, “we don’t accept Marshalls rewards.”

That’s when my eyes began to dart around the building. At the walls. At the signage. At the shopping baskets. Horrified, I realized I am standing in Gabe’s. Not Marshalls.

Thought of this holiday season lapse a week or so ago when the news broke that another discount chain is moving to the area by summertime. When it ultimately opens its doors at the old Toys R Us homestead on Business Route 6 — by Memorial Day, store officials hope — Ocean State Job Lot will join the likes of Gabe’s and Marshalls and T.J. Maxx and, well, a slew of other off-price department stores where you can get anything from hair dryers to extra virgin olive oil, blenders to boxer briefs.

Take it from someone who considers a stroll around a shopping center to be a pretty relaxing Saturday night, any new franchise coming into the region is good enough for me. But anyone who has ever tied a room together with a carpet they found at Ollie’s or baked macaroons with some almond flour from the gluten-free rack at P&R Discounts in Eynon knows there is no shortage of discount suppliers to be found in an 8-mile stretch of Route 6.

It begs the question: Is our market potentially too saturated with rollbacks, overrun with shopping experiences so similar that you wouldn’t know which store you were in without looking at a clerk’s identification tag?

“Do we need another discount store? The answer is no,” said Lawrence Lebenson, the owner of Forty Fort-based Lawrence Real Estate LLC, which has been involved in commercial real estate around Northeast Pennsylvania for decades. “But the demographics for this area show that discount stores, even in bad economic times, do well.”

What does that say about our area? Not as much, it turns out, as it says about the challenges retailers face in an ever-changing world for the typical consumer.

It’s common sense at this point to say our retail habits are driven by e-commerce. Most of my family’s Christmas shopping got done this year at Kohl’s and Target, but it’s not like we had to physically visit the stores themselves to do it. Want a champagne flute? Hit a few buttons on your computer, and anyone from Macy’s to Crate & Barrel can have one on your doorstep in four to six business days, for less than 10 bucks.

Some shopping experiences that remain do defy surfing a website, though. Which begs the question: What does a consumer need to do to get an IKEA closer than an hourslong trip down the Northeast Extension?

Ever visit an IKEA on a weekend? If not, picture walking around your living room, only there are a hundred other people there rushing to beat you to a spot on your couch, and the closest you can get to your driveway is about 300 yards away. But the likelihood you’re ever going to see one in this area is remote, because they know you’ll make a two-hour drive to check out that computer desk that will look really cool in the office, assuming you can put it together yourself.

“The reality is, the retailer knows the consumer can shop online, can get in their car and is willing to drive an hour or more to get to the brick-and-mortar shop, so they don’t have to be in every town,” Lebenson said.

Which leaves the bricks and mortar to be swiped up deftly by what we’re seeing pop up all over Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, the discount outlets that are providing retail jobs and unique shopping experiences. These new stores are also changing the way our retail landscape looks.

We have plenty of bricks and mortar here, and it speaks to the quality of the shopping area in Dickson City that one of those buildings doesn’t stay vacant long. But the future will be for the traditional powers — Walmart, Target and Kohl’s — along with the off-price outlets that are clever enough to keep changing their inventory, their strategy and their footprint and have made themselves one-stop shopping destinations.

Ever wonder why you can now buy Rice Krispies Treats at Staples? Or pay $5 for cosmetics at Dollar General? Or get some cast-iron cookware at Wegmans?

“They’re competing in a way with the grocery store. They’re competing with the dollar stores and these discount stores,” Lebenson said. “It’s just crazy the direction these things have gone to.

“The whole thing changed, not just because of shopping habits, but because of competition. Everyone is just trying their best to stay in the black.”

It isn’t that easy to do these days. But we’re sure doing our best to help them all make it work.

DONNIE COLLINS, the Times-Tribune sports columnist, is a regular at the clearance rack. Contact him at dcollins@timesshamrock.com and follow him on Twitter

@DonnieCollinsTT and on Facebook.

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