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Retailers are haunted by recession present

When economists recently backdated the official start of the recession to late 2007, many retailers wondered what took them so long.

After all, the retail industry had been deep in a recession of its own at least that long. Then came an autumn collapse of the financial markets that shoved their sales off a cliff to the worst Christmas holiday in decades.

No doubt 2008 will go down as a tumultuous year in retailing and a sobering end to a long, debt-induced consumer spending binge. So here are some thumbnail versions of the year's top stories from the Tampa Bay area shopping front.

• Normally retailers wait until January to give up the ghost or close unprofitable stores. This year many could not even hold on that long. Goners this year include Sharper Image, Linens n' Things, Sound Advice, Steve & Barry's, KB Toys, Friedman and Whitehall Jewelers. Limping along in bankruptcy is Circuit City. Many chains even closed stores and laid off staff during the holidays. Cork & Olive, Bennigan's and Shells vanished except for some diehard franchisees.

• Hackers found new ways to intercept credit and debit card numbers from stores' wireless networks and turn them into cash. TJMaxx/Marshalls figured it owes damages of $256-million from a data breach that exposed 46-million card numbers, many of them in Florida. More than 1.6-million Sweetbay Supermarket shoppers' payment card numbers were stolen, then some surfaced in a global run of fraudulent purchases ranging from a Wal-Mart gas station in Gibsonton to a drugstore in Brazil. Federal officials arrested a Ukranian-born hacker in Turkey in connection with both cases but are still trying to figure out the theft network.

• Publix Super Markets all but took out Albertsons locally with the $500-million purchase of half its rival's Florida stores. Publix, Sweetbay and Wal-Mart split up Albertsons market share along with Aldi, a newcomer with a bare-bones approach to pricing and service.

• By fall, even luxury retailers once regarded as recession-proof were stung by a new wave of shopper frugality. A sense spread even among the affluent that conspicuous consumption looks bad when so many people are hurting. Layaway made a comeback. Places doing well by year's end show how trading down works: Wal-Mart, B.J.'s Warehouse, rock T-shirt shop Hot Topic, grocery store labels, outlet malls, dollar stores and second-hand shops.

• The Shops at Wiregrass in Wesley Chapel opened as the latest mall-caliber addition to the retailing scene with Dillard's, Macy's and JCPenney. A Main Street-style development, Wiregrass won a race against rival Cypress Creek Town Center, which is mired in environmental permit problems. Except for smaller projects like a new Ikea rising near Ybor City, the recession, the credit crunch and reluctant retailers delayed the start of more big, new major retail projects locally until 2010.

• Baywalk in downtown St. Petersburg suffered the same fate as the Centro Ybor and Channelside entertainment centers that also debuted in 2000: Lenders took back the property. The failure left downtown retailing, which had enjoyed a revival, with a growing surplus of empty space thanks to ground-floor retail in many new high-rise condos. Meanwhile, planners search for a future for the Pier, a retail landmark with an 82-year-old superstructure in need of a rebuild.

Just think, it was only eight months ago that city officials solicited bids for a downtown mall for big box stores — since forgotten — to raise money for a baseball stadium.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Retailers are haunted by recession present 12/22/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 22, 2008 9:33pm]
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