While local business experts see slight improvement in the economy this year, recovery will be a bit of a climb for the Valley's retailers.
They'll have to keep pace with the changing demands of a customer base that's expecting a lot more.
"You must adapt. You have to reinvest or there's a new competitor in the next week who will eat you for lunch," says Tony Iannelli, president and CEO of the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce.
Clearly one area that is continuing to have an effect on retailers both here and across the country is the Internet.
Take these numbers for example: The National Retail Federation has forecast a 3.4 percent increase in retail sales across the country for 2013, which is less than the 4.2 percent seen in 2012.
Compare that with what the NRF expects for online sales in 2013 — a jump of 9 percent to 12 percent. November and December saw an 11 percent increase over the same period the previous year.
"There is a lot of competition out there," Iannelli says. "A tremendous amount of business is being done online."
One Valley retailer who recognized this is Susan Kolar, owner of Susan Kolar Couture in Easton. She opened her custom-design and dressmaking studio in Easton in June and says having an online presence was always important to her.
"You have to go forward with the technology," Kolar says. "My website tries to show a friendly way of getting something that's high quality and tailored to a woman's unique style."
Her websitehttp://www.susankolarcouture.comis loaded with photos of gowns to give women some inspiration as well as to show Kolar's skills. The site also provides explanations of what she can offer.
Knowing today's consumer is tied to a smartphone, Kolar exchanges cellphone numbers with clients and texts them photos of a gown as it goes through the process (something that can be very important to assure a nervous bride awaiting her custom dream gown).
Bigger retailers like Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans have long embraced the online marketplace. Recently, however, the company upgraded its store app to include Android devices and upgrades for Apple devices. Using the new app, customers can create a shopping list or build upon previous ones (a history of past purchases is available through the app). The app also allows customers to keep track of their spending as the list offers an estimated total. And it helps shoppers find the products on their list in the store.
Last year also saw a number of larger retailers investing in their Lehigh Valley brick-and-mortar sites. Wegmans in Allentown is undergoing an expansion project that's affecting every area of the store. One of the biggest attractions is The Pub, a 125-seat full-service restaurant and bar, expected to open in late spring.
Wegmans isn't the only supermarket chain to invest in its local sites. Weis opened its new 65,800-square-foot Fogelsville "green" store late last year and Giant just completed major remodeling of its stores at 801 S. 25th St. in Palmer Township, 2100 W. Union Blvd. in Bethlehem and 3070 Tilghman St. in Allentown.
A decade after closing its last supermarkets in Lehigh and Northampton counties, ShopRite is planning a return to the Valley in the fall with a store at 4717 Freemansburg Ave. in Bethlehem Township.
Last year also saw other retail chains investing in new sites in the Valley. Crowds of enthusiastic buffet-restaurant fans flocked to the Golden Corral restaurant, which opened in January at the site of the former Chi-Chi's restaurant at the Lehigh Valley Mall. (The restaurant is still seeing long lines). The former Bob Evans on Lehigh Street in Allentown will soon be home to Rodizio Grill, a Brazilian steakhouse chain, filling the last vacant property at that important corner near Interstate 78. Hibachi Grill will take over half of the long-vacant Circuit City property on Grape Street. The other half is now occupied by ReStore, a retail store operated by Habitat for Humanity, which opened in January.
Vacancy-plagued Phillipsburg Mall was sold to Mason Asset Management of Great Neck, N.Y., for $11.5 million.
And Costco, the popular membership warehouse, is planned for a site in Lower Macungie Township.
While retailers are clearly investing in the Valley, 2012 also saw a number of notable losses.
Restaurant favorites Confetti Café in Bethlehem, Paolo's Italian Restaurant in Northampton and the historic King George Inn in Allentown were among those that closed their doors. PigPen, a music, arcade and restaurant complex, near Coca-Cola Park closed, as did Starters Riverport, the Lehigh Valley's largest restaurant and an early linchpin in south Bethlehem's revitalization.
Trader Joe's still isn't coming to the Valley despite the overwhelming interest from customers here.
But despite the losses in 2012 and an economy that's inching instead of leaping forward, local experts remain optimistic.
"That's what I love about the urban-core retailers," Iannelli says. "It's for the dreamers. People who have scraped together dollars to live a dream. On every main street, there are people that reach into their pockets and their time for their community."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun