Greetings & Readings, a retail fixture in the Baltimore area for nearly five decades, will close next month because of sharply declining sales and stiff online competition.
The family-owned independent seller of books, greeting cards, jewelry, apparel, handbags and gifts announced plans Thursday to close its sprawling store in Hunt Valley Towne Center on Jan. 20. The business employs 80 people.
Sales and customer traffic have been declining for several years, but business this year fell off even more, by about 15 percent, compared with 2017, said Steve Spund, store vice president and one of five family members running the business.
“There are certainly several factors involved, but the main one is it’s impossible to compete with the Internet and online sales and Amazon, when they are offering pricing that we pay and they can get it to you for free,” Spund said. “We can’t compete.”
Online sales have helped put overall holiday spending this season on track to break records in a climate of strong consumer confidence. Holiday sales have surged 5.1 percent to more than $850 billion, the strongest growth in the last six years, according to MasterCard SpendingPulse, which tracks retail spending. And Amazon has touted strong sales. But all retailers haven’t benefited.
Small retailers such as Greetings & Readings, which operates just one store, have increasingly felt the pinch of manufacturers selling directly to consumers via their own websites or or through Amazon, often offering free shipping and special discounts. Even larger retailers haven’t been immune to shifts in the way people shop. Chains such as Sports Authority and Toys R Us have gone out of business while Sears, Kmart, Mattress Firm, Foot Locker and Gap Inc. are among retailers closing under-performing stores.
While retail chains can restructure or close some locations, independent shops have fewer options to recover from downturns, said Mark Millman, president and CEO of Millman Search Group, an Owings Mills-based retail consulting and executive search firm. Retailers that are struggling often wait out the crucial holiday shopping period before deciding whether to continue.
This year, the National Retail Federation expected consumers to spend $693 on average, with more than three quarters planning to spend online, an all time high. U.S. shoppers were expected to spend $119.9 billion with online retailers, a more than 15 percent jump.
“They couldn’t avoid it,” Millman said of Greetings & Readings’ announced closing. “They tried and it became unworkable… At some point you have to say enough is enough, and you don’t throw good money after bad. They’re going the way of a lot of other privately held retailers.”
Greetings & Readings opened in 1969 in Loch Raven Plaza in Towson, started by Phyllis Baum, who is now 85 and still works at the store four days a week with other family members, including Steven and Fran Baum, Spund and his wife, Amy Baum Spund. At first, the store sold primarily books and greeting cards and specialized in custom invitations. Later it also rented and sold videos.
The retailer moved to its current 30,000 square foot location in August 2005, becoming the largest independent bookstore in the Baltimore area. It has survived other booksellers that served the Baltimore area, such as Bibelot and Borders.
Sales at Greetings & Readings began declining by about 3 percent during the 2008 recession, but even as electronic books and greeting cards became more popular, the store diversified and continued to change its product mix to stay relevant. It brought in apparel and accessory brands such as Brighton, Vera Bradley, Swarovski, Alex and Ani, Tommy Bahama and Simply Southern. The Hunt Valley store, an expansion from the Towson location, included a Hallmark card department, a wifi-enabled reading lounge and a cafe. It also sold candy, personalized stationery and gifts.
The business always counted on holidays, whether Christmas or occasions such as Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. More recently, though, shopping patterns had shifted, and customers tended to come in at the last minute, shortening selling seasons, Spund said.
“What’s happened is that the holidays have come down to one or two days,” he said. “You just can’t survive on a holiday that’s two days.”
Minimum wage and healthcare cost increases have been a factor as well. “We don’t have the luxury of raising prices to cover these costs,” Steven Baum, the store’s president, said in an announcement. “We don't have the ability to replace people with automation in order to reduce expenses. Sadly, a full-service store is just not sustainable anymore.”
Family members explored options such as reducing space, but decided they could never recoup the costs. They tried unsuccessfully to find a buyer or merge with another business, all the while pouring personal money into the store.
“There comes a point where you’ve explored every avenue and you need to make the hard, but inevitable, decision to close the doors,” Steven Baum said.
Tom Fitzpatrick, president and COO of Greenberg Gibbons, the Hunt Valley center’s owner, said retailers at the shopping center have reported strong overall holiday traffic. McCormick’s new headquarters, which opened in October across Shawan Road from the center, has helped boost visitors, he said.
“Greetings & Readings has been a long-standing, family-owned business in Baltimore, and we are very disappointed to see them leave Hunt Valley Towne Centre,” Fitzpatrick said in an email. “Hunt Valley Towne Centre continues to have a high occupancy rate at 98 percent leased, and we are adding new retailers in 2019, including Lands’ End.”
Greetings and Readings has begun a closing sale, offering half price holiday merchandise and discounts of 25 percent on books and magazines and 30 percent on all other products.
“We have been fortunate to serve hundred of thousands of wonderful customers with important events in their lives — weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, births — their hobbies and passions,” Phyllis Baum said in an announcement. “We will miss the thousands of friends, the hundreds of employees that have made this dream possible.”
Spund said the owners met with employees Thursday morning to inform them of the closing.
“There were a lot of hugs and a lot of tears,” he said.