Gas prices hurting destination stores

Consumer spending is down and gas prices are up. That's bad math for the scores of destination retailers across the country that want customers to fill up the tank for a gas-guzzling day of retail therapy.

So to cajole shoppers into stores, some of the nation's chains are changing marketing strategies, launching in-store classes and drumming up other special events aimed at getting road-tripping shoppers to pump up sales.

Customers at Bass Pro Shops drive an average of 100 miles to reach the company's 50 locations, including stores in Concord and in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Many are known to drive up to 300 miles each way to spend time at the massive outdoor supercenters.

But with the average price of a gallon of regular gas above $4, getting even the most devoted customer to make the trip is becoming more difficult.

That's why the Springfield, Mo.-based chain is launching a slate of events this weekend, offering outdoor skills workshops, s'mores-making, scavenger hunts and foam shooting competitions for shoppers.

Bass Pro Shops spokesman Larry Whiteley says foot traffic in stores is falling, but the company hopes this weekend's events give customers more than just one reason to make the drive.

“We're teaching them how, for less than $100, they can have their own camping outfit and they can go to a lake or a campground or they can use it in their own backyard,” he said.

As gas prices and food prices soar, the American shopper is scaling back: driving less, postponing big purchases, delaying vacations, cutting back on shopping expenses.

That means those shoppers who do make purchases are making them closer to home.

It's a trend George Rosenbaum, co-founder of Leo J. Shapiro and Associates, calls a retailing transformation.

“Any store that has significant dependence on drawing traffic from more than 30 miles is going to have pressure on it,” he said.

But not all destination retailers are feeling the squeeze.

American Girl stores – veritable wonderlands for doll-loving girls and their parents – are seeing increased traffic this summer. Stephanie Spanos, a spokeswoman for the dollmaker owned by Mattel, attributed the increase to the movie “Kit Kittridge: An American Girl.”

“Given the timing, we're seeing probably a lift in store traffic,” she said.

At the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., foot traffic is up, too – thanks largely to the 1.5 million international shoppers who were lured to the mega-mall in the past year by the weakened U.S. dollar.

But officials say they're still changing their advertising strategy, spending more money in markets a day's drive from the 520-store mall. They hope the targeted campaigns offset any potential decrease in far-flung shoppers deterred by the high price of fuel.

“We're always out there hustling to get the word out,” said spokesman Daniel Jasper. “But we've been a little more aggressive this year, to be honest.”

The same goes for Cabela's, whose stores routinely draw shoppers from three hours away. The Sidney, Neb.-based retailer known for its elaborate, one-of-a-kind stores is launching a new display advertising campaign with a gas-saving theme, encouraging shoppers worried about fuel prices to scrap in-store visits for online or catalog orders.

“We can hopefully direct customers to those channels so they don't have to fire up the car,” said spokesman Joe Arterburn, who said the company is likely drawing fewer in-store shoppers from great distances. “Everyone is tightening their belt.”