Category Archives: Shopping

shopping could be called one of America’s favorite

 The mall with your girlfriends on a Saturday afternoon, to holiday spending on gifts that go under the tree, shopping could be called one of America’s favorite pastimes.For most people, it means some new clothes for work or a small trinket for a friend. For others, however, shopping is much more than an enjoyable pastime, and in some cases, it is a real and destructive addiction that can turn into a financial disaster.

“Compulsive shopping and spending are defined as inappropriate, excessive, and out of control,” says Donald Black, MD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa College of Medicine. “Like other addictions, it basically has to do with impulsiveness and lack of control over one’s impulses. In America, shopping is embedded in our culture; so often, the impulsiveness comes out as excessive shopping.”

Sometimes referred to as “shopoholism,” shopping addiction can wreak havoc on a person’s life, family, and finances. Experts explain to WebMD why shopping can be so addictive, what the warning signs are, and how to stop the cycle of spending.

“No one knows what causes addictive behaviors, like shopping, alcoholism, drug abuse, and gambling,” says Ruth Engs, EdD, a professor of applied health science at Indiana University. “Some of the new evidence suggests that some people, maybe 10%-15%, may have a genetic predisposition to an addictive behavior, coupled with an environment in which the particular behavior is triggered, but no one really knows why.”

While the origin of addictions remains uncertain, why addicts continue their destructive behaviors is better understood.

“Individuals will get some kind of high from an addictive behavior like shopping,” says Engs. “Meaning that endorphins and dopamine, naturally occurring opiate receptor sites in the brain, get switched on, and the person feels good, and if it feels good they are more likely to do it — it’s reinforced.”

So what are the telltale signs that shopping has crossed the line and become an addiction?

Closed its more than wedding dress

The reason: Alfred Angelo abruptly closed its more than 60 wedding dress stores on Wednesday, leaving brides racing to figure out if they would get the gowns they had already ordered. On Friday, the company filed for bankruptcy.

The closings added an element of panic to a wedding process often filled with stress, and brides and bridesmaids shared their exasperation on Twitter and Facebook. They rushed to figure out the status of their orders, and store employees were left trying to explain the situation.

Cyndi Whitten of Houston, whose daughter had ordered a $1,500 gown from Alfred Angelo for her wedding in October, said: “This has turned into the most difficult and stressful part of the whole thing. You just wanted to sit there and burst into tears because your daughter’s easy part of the wedding isn’t so easy. The company, which opened in 1933, did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment. Patricia Redmond, a lawyer who represents Alfred Angelo, did not return a phone call.

In a letter to customers obtained by The New York Times, Ms. Redmond wrote that the company would “encourage” the bankruptcy trustee to “finish and fulfill as many orders as possible.”

“The company regrets that this action will have dramatic impact on you,” Ms. Redmond wrote in the letter.

Despite the uproar after the store closings, Alfred Angelo has said nothing about the situation publicly. Some customers realized that the company had shut down after finding signs posted on locked store doors.

A private company based in Delray Beach, Fla., Alfred Angelo sold its dresses at 1,400 other retailers, in addition to operating its own stores, according to its website. Like other bridal companies, it has faced pressure from bridal fashion start-ups and traditional retailers pushing low prices. In its bankruptcy filing, the company said it had no more than $50,000 in assets, but more than $50 million in liabilities.

Competitors were rushing to capitalize on the company’s demise. David’s Bridal offered discounts to Alfred Angelo customers if they can show a receipt from the store, as well as free rushed alterations.

Alfred Angelo’s failure led Alex Pacifico and her co-workers at the company’s bridal store near Dayton, Ohio, to spend Thursday essentially running a guerrilla retail operation. They scrambled to get customers gowns they had ordered and told customers to take sample items they had on hand.

Redesign Shopping from Scratch

The first part of any such strategy is facing reality. Retailing executives must acknowledge that the new technologies will get faster, cheaper, and more versatile. They need to forecast the likely digital density in their categories and prepare for the effects. What should I do differently today if I believe that 20% of our sales will soon come from digital retailing—and that 80% of our sales will be heavily influenced by it? Should we be opening any new stores at all? And if so, how different should they be? How should we adjust to a world of greater price transparency? What happens when traffic-building categories shift online and no longer pull customers into our stores?

Situations like these call for start-from-scratch, across-the-board innovation. In the book Idealized Design: How to Dissolve Tomorrow’s Crisis…Today, coauthor Russell L. Ackoff recounts a similar turning point at Bell Labs in 1951. The vice president in charge of the labs asked a group to name the organization’s most important contributions to telephonic communications. The VP pointed out that each one, including the telephone dial and the coaxial cable, had been conceived and implemented before 1900. He challenged the group to assume that the phone system was dead and had to be rebuilt from scratch. What would it look like? How would it work? Soon Bell’s scientists and engineers were busy investigating completely new technologies—and came up with concepts for push-button phones, call waiting, call forwarding, voicemail, conference calls, and mobile phones. Retailers need the same start-over mentality.

 The design specifications of omnichannel retailing are growing clearer by the day. Customers want everything. They want the advantages of digital, such as broad selection, rich product information, and customer reviews and tips. They want the advantages of physical stores, such as personal service, the ability to touch products, and shopping as an event and an experience. (Online merchants take note.) Different customer segments will value parts of the shopping experience differently, but all are likely to want perfect integration of the digital and the physical.

The challenge for a retailer is to create innovations that bring the vision to life, wowing those customers and generating profitable growth. Let’s see what this might mean in practice.

The experience of shopping

Traditional retailers have suffered more than they probably realize at the hands of Amazon and other online companies. As volume trickles from the stores and sales per square foot decline, the response of most retailers is almost automatic: Cut labor, reduce costs, and sacrifice service. But that only exacerbates the problem. With even less service to differentiate the stores, customers focus increasingly on price and convenience, which strengthens the advantages of online retailers.

If traditional retailers hope to survive, they have to turn the one big feature that internet retailers lack—stores—from a liability into an asset. Stores will continue to exist in any foreseeable future—and they can be an effective competitive weapon. Research shows that physical stores boost online purchases: One European retailer, for instance, reports that it captures nearly 5% of online sales in areas near its physical stores, but only 3% outside those areas. Online and offline experiences can be complementary.

The traditional store, however, won’t be sufficient. For too many people, shopping in a store is simply a chore to be endured: If they can find ways to avoid it, they will. But what if visiting a store were exciting, entertaining, emotionally engaging? What if it were as much fun as going to the movies or going out to dinner—and what if you could get the kind of experience with products that is simply unavailable online?

This is hardly beyond the realm of possibility. Jordan’s Furniture, a New England chain, achieves some of the highest furniture sales productivity in the country by using themed “streets” within its stores, a Mardi Gras show, an IMAX 3-D theater, a laser light show, food courts, a city constructed of jellybeans, a motion-simulation ride, a water show, a trapeze school, and special charity events. Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops not only have some of the highest-­rated websites; they also have some of the most engaging physical stores. These kinds of store experiences are expensive to create. Might digital technology improve the customer experience in stores more cost-effectively?

In fact, it is already doing so. Digital technology can replace lifeless storefront windows with vibrant interactive screens that change with the weather or time of day and are capable of generating recommendations or taking orders when the store is closed. It can allow customers to design products or assemble outfits and display their creations in high-visibility locations like Times Square. It can create engaging games that attract customers, encourage them to stay longer, and reward them for cocreating innovative ideas.

Digital technology—in the form of tablets, for example—can also give sales associates nearly infinite information about customers, describing the way they like to be treated and creating precise models of their homes or body types that enable perfect choices. It can change pricing and promotions accurately and instantaneously. It can provide customized recommendations. Virtual mirrors accelerate and enliven the dressing room experience by connecting customers with trusted friends. Technology can eliminate checkout lines, capture transaction receipts, file rebate claims, and speed returns. It can give a call center operator full access to a customer’s purchase and complaint history.

My objective here is not to enumerate every possible innovation. Rather, it’s to illustrate how the opportunities for digital technology in stores, mobile devices, call centers, and other channels are just as abundant and viable as they are for websites. Moreover—and this is key—retailers in many categories can link these channels and technologies to create an omnichannel experience with stores that is superior to a purely digital retail strategy.

One task is to apply these innovations early enough, frequently enough, and broadly enough to change customer perceptions and behaviors. Adopting successful innovations three years after competitors do is unlikely to generate much buzz or traffic. Of course, many digital innovations will fail, and the effects of others will be hard to quantify. So a second task is to upgrade testing and learning skills to 21st-century levels. It was hard enough to gauge the effects of pricing changes, store-format upgrades, or newspaper versus TV ads in the old world. (Remember John Wanamaker’s famous lament that he knew he was wasting half his advertising budget but didn’t know which half?) An omnichannel world makes those test-and-learn challenges look like child’s play. Retailers must now try to assess the effects of paid search, natural search, e-circulars, digital displays, e-mail campaigns, and other new techniques and third-party innovations such as SCVNGR, a location-based social network game—and must gauge those effects on both physical and digital channels (which include mobile apps as well as the internet).

Leading-edge companies such as PetSmart and the UK pharmacy chain Boots have begun applying science to this task: They are testing digital and physical innovations with clinical-trial-style methodology, using sophisticated software to create control groups and eliminate random variation and other noise. All this is costly, but it’s hard to see how retailers can avoid doing more of it.

Highland Park coffee shop

The Ravinia Coffee Station has introduced a new Sunday morning perk to the neighborhood: live music.

Weather permitting, it’s a scene out of the classic Creedence Clearwater song. Down on the corner and out on the sidewalk, owner Josh Weisbart and a recurring line-up of musicians play acoustic music to lift the spirits of customers and passersby. “It’s wonderful to find live music just happening,” said Laura Davis Sherman of Highland Park. “It’s a really great pause in the week.”

The Ravinia Coffee Station, 723 St. John’s Ave. in Highland Park, opened last November. Weisbart, who plays guitar and mandolin, bills himself as “a casual musician.” Taking his cue from the summer-long Ravinia Festival, Weisbart said he “always intended for music to be part of the big picture” of the to-go coffee shop located on the corner of St. Johns and Roger Williams avenues. “Music has the ability to bring people together,” he said.

On this Sunday morning, a larger crowd than usual gravitated toward the coffee shop in response to a Facebook post by Marcus Newman, a mandolin player and longtime Weisbart friend, who wanted to use this particular gathering as a platform to raise awareness for three Israeli students who were recently kidnapped. The teens, tragically, were found dead the next day in the West Bank.

Accompanying Newman were fellow Deerfield resident Dr. Gary Schaffel on bass and Andy Dennen from Gurnee on guitar. Together, they comprise Soul Zimra, a Jewish worship ensemble that had been performing mainly at B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in Deerfield, where Newman is a member. Recently they have been branching out to other area festivals and more secular settings such as the Midtown Athletic Club.

The Sunday morning jam sessions last from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m., not typically musician’s hours. “Why does music only have to be at night,” Newman laughed.

Weisbart does not only get a little help from his friends. He has also encouraged young musicians to join in. This day’s ensemble included 16-year-old twin brothers Zach and Sam Powers, Highland Park High School students. Zach played the melodica, a combination of keyboard and harmonica, and Sam played mandolin.

The music, “appropriate for Sunday morning in the neighborhood,” Weisbart said, includes folk music and bluegrass. Selections range from a sing-along of Simon and Garfunkle’s “Homeward Bound” to a Mumford & Sons hit.

Music and coffee shops are a good brew, Weisbart observed. Both, he said, are very social. “Music is a great way to start the day. It really gets me in a good mood.”

The good vibes are contagious. “Eight of us came out here two weeks ago,” said onlooker Andrew Bloom of Highland Park. “We were watching the bike riders go by. They were smiling because they heard the music. Cars would roll down their windows and you just saw smiles. It’s such positive energy.”

Online shopping cart

Retailers are trying to combat such massive lost opportunity with emails – offering targeted marketing messages reminding customers that they left merchandise unpurchased. Some send one email, some send multiple. Some wait a few days, some send a note immediately. Some offer discount codes to lure shoppers back to their carts. And therein lies an opportunity for wafflers.

“Consumers are definitely wising up to the fact that retailers are doing this,” says Carrie Gouldin, Web community manager at Thinkgeek.com.

She set up a system at her company, which sells geek chic merchandise such as the iCade (an iPad arcade cabinet), to send out one email reminder to customers who have opted in to email communications. The current offer is $10 off $50.

In the online retail space, abandonment rates of shopping carts hover around 65 percent, according to an analysis by Baymard Institute of 14 recent studies. While that seems like a really huge number, it’s a smaller figure that’s more startling – a recent study by Listrak shows that only 14.6 percent of the top 1,000 retailers are doing anything about customer flight.

Presumably, shoppers could abandon their carts intentionally, hoping for a discount email to follow shortly. The question Gouldin and her colleagues ask is: “Do we want to train customer to have this behavior or not?”

Thinkgeek’s answer is decidedly yes.

Gouldin says that double the people open their abandoned cart emails than their regular newsletters and Thinkgeek get 10 times the revenue per customer.

“And the trade-off of offering a discount is worth it to us,” Gouldin says.

Email marketer Listrak, which did the study on the top 1,000 retailers’ responses to cart abandonment, says that other retailers who have tried campaigns also have had positive results. Listrak expects the number of retailers who follow up with consumers to grow exponentially, starting with the top retailers and then moving down the chain (see http://link.reuters.com/hux58s).

“The top retailers are all doing it,” says Megan Ouellet, director of marketing for Listrak, citing retailers such as Land’s End, Best Buy, Home Depot and Zappos.

“It’s the mid-market retailers that aren’t as progressive. Sometimes it’s a resource issue.”

There is no service yet tracking discounts for abandoned carts. The closest thing is an online gallery that Listrak put together of 20 top campaigns, but since offers change so often, it’s not reliable for consumers.

Trial and error might work, however. Shopping expert Julia Scott, who runs the blog Bargainbabe.com, has had email pop into her in-box after she has abandoned carts, but not many discounts.

“I know a lot of retailers don’t do this,” Scott says. “They will email me and say hey, you left some stuff in your cart, but they don’t offer anything, which is a lost opportunity. Even a small coupon or free shipping would tip me over the edge.”

The staff at dealnews.com, which aggregates shopping offers, see an increasing number of offers appearing in their in-boxes. Since the team tests 300 or so offers daily – all the way to the last stage of purchase – they abandon carts all day long.

“I’ve noticed recently that more stores have begun emailing me about an abandoned’ shopping cart, although usually to just ask if I had “trouble checking out,” says dealnews features director Lindsay Sakraida. “The more clever retailers will offer enticement in their email, to make you reconsider the purchase.”

Lest consumers try to game the system too much, some companies have built-in restrictions. Thinkgeek, for example, generates a unique code for each email that can only be used once. Other companies, says Listrak, track consumers who have received discounts before and do not send them any more offers. And others simply change their offers so often that it’s impossible for the consumer to predict what they’ll get.

Despite the risk of proliferating coupon codes, expect more retailers to jump into the fray simply because it works. For browsers looking at clothing and other impulse items, Sakraida thinks a discount could make all the difference.

Shopping binge brings Black Friday hangover

Eager to entice cautious consumers, especially with six fewer shopping days this year than in 2012, many retailers launched sales on Thursday’s U.S. holiday, traditionally a day for family, friends and football games. Even Macy’s Inc’s flagship store in New York City opened then for the first time in its 155-year history, at 8 p.m.

Some U.S. shoppers played along, hitting the Internet and stores on Thanksgiving. But by late Friday morning, foot traffic looked a lot more like on a regular Saturday than the typical Black Friday frenzy that kicks off the holiday season.

“It’s a lot less than I thought,” said Alison Goodwin, from Horsham, Pennsylvania, who ventured to an area mall on Friday seeking gifts and maybe something for herself.

“It’s like any weekend in December,” Goodwin said.

While mall traffic appeared slower than last year, overall Black Friday online sales as of noon EST were up more than 7 percent from a year ago, according to IBM Digital Analytics Benchmark. That came on top of the 19.7 percent increase on Thanksgiving Day, the firm said.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc U.S. Chief Executive Bill Simon said Thanksgiving visits to stores of the largest U.S. retailer surpassed last year’s 22 million mark, and a swarm of online shoppers temporarily crashed its online site.

David Berman, founder of Durban Capital, a New York hedge fund that specializes in retail and consumer stocks, said U.S. shopping habits have permanently shifted with the exponential rise in online shopping, thanks largely to smart devices, notably Apple Inc’s top-selling iPad.

Sales of big-ticket items like smartphones have helped mask weaknesses in traditional retail, he noted.

“By our calculations, half of U.S. publicly held retailer sales growth is coming from SAA (Samsung, Apple and Amazon),” said Berman.

TOOTH AND NAIL

Retailers often record the majority of their annual sales during the end-of-year holiday shopping season, and rely on discounts and marketing blitzes to try and grab a slice of spending estimated at some $600 billion annually.

The battle for the consumer dollar has been particularly intense in a year when taxes have increased, unemployment has remained stubbornly high, and confidence has taken a hit from a recent government shutdown and uncertainty over the introduction of President Barack Obama’s healthcare reforms.

Offsetting those negatives has been the wealth impact of a rise in home prices and a rallying stock market, though those are more likely to help the luxury end of retailing.

Even Apple is not immune to this year’s heightened competition.

A new Ipsos/Reuters poll found that, among consumers thinking of buying a tablet, 21 percent favored Amazon Inc’s Kindle Fire, followed by 19 percent for Apple’s iPad and 17 percent for Samsung Electronics Co Ltd’s Galaxy.

In a rare gesture from the iPad-maker and a nod to intense competition from Samsung, tech giants like Microsoft Corp and Google Inc, and online retailer Amazon, Apple is offering gift cards worth up to $75 for every purchase on its website.

Shoppers lured to a Target store in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, by an even better iPad Air deal (a $100 Target gift card along with the $479 device) arrived too late on Friday morning, as the store had sold out.

Reuters reporters in several U.S. cities found shoppers cherry-picking discounted flat-screen televisions and other door busters without adding higher-margin items to their purchases – behavior that could bite into retail profits.

Overall, Berman said, “sales will eventually be OK but margins won’t.”

EBay Inc was the second best performer in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index on Friday, gaining 2.5 percent, and Best Buy was third, rising 2.4 percent. Apple and Amazon were also in the top 10 on Friday, when trading closed early.

Kohl’s Corp and Nordstrom Inc fell 1.1 percent and 0.8 percent, respectively.

Shopping Blackhawks

A short time after the Stars acquired Jason Spezza in a blockbuster trade Tuesday, the Blues opened their pocketbook to sign the coveted Paul Stastny to a huge contract and the Avalanchescooped up veteran sniper Jarome Iginla. The Wild followed by bringing Thomas Vanek into the fold and the Jets even got into the act when they added Mathieu Perreault to bolster their center position.

All the while, the Hawks were relatively quiet, only re-signing veteran center Peter Regin to a one-year, $650,000 contract.

Just when it seemed the Hawks would be content entering the 2014-15 season with Andrew Shaw, who is better suited as a winger, or unproven prospect Teuvo Teravainen as their second-line center, general manager Stan Bowman landed a bigger fish with a late-afternoon signing of veteran Brad Richards to a one-year, $2 million contract.

Just like that, the Hawks had a legitimate No. 2 center.

“It’s a big moment for us to be able to add someone of (Richards’) caliber as a hockey player and as an individual,” Bowman said. “He brings so many things to the table for us. There are a lot of options for our coaching staff now. We’ve certainly been searching for someone that is an experienced center in the NHL. He’s played a lot of years and done a lot of incredible things.”

Richards, 34, was a key member of the Rangers team that reached the Stanley Cup Final with 20 goals and 31 assists in 82 regular-season games. New York used its final compliance buyout on the remainder of Richards’ nine-year, $60 million contract signed in ’11 to make him an unrestricted free agent, and the Hawks pounced though they were offering only a one-year, cut-rate deal.

“If I was going to go to Chicago, we had to work out something in this fashion,” Richards said. “I was very flexible. I’m coming in because I’m pretty confident that I can still play a lot of hockey in this league. I saw a great opportunity to play on a great team and fill a role. If it’s one year, that’s fine. Hopefully, we make it work and who knows what can happen down the road?”

Joining a Hawks team loaded with offensive talent and a chance to center a line with Patrick Kane was a big lure for Richards.

“When you look at the opportunity to play here it’s pretty exciting because you know that if you’re playing center on the top two lines you’re playing with a great player — probably two great players,” Richards said. “Patrick Kane is one of the most explosive players in the league. When you get a chance to maybe team up with one of those players on a line … it makes you feel pretty excited. I can’t wait to get to work and try to make it a great experience for everybody.”

The deal appears to be a bargain for the Hawks, and that’s the only way they were going to bring in a player who can assume a big role. Factoring in Teravainen making the roster after a summer spent in Finland developing, the Richards signing puts the Hawks about $2.2 million over the NHL’s $69 million upper limit to the salary cap. Bowman will be forced to make a move at some point to clear cap space, but he said that is not a concern.

Business for Indiana fireworks shops

In the week before the nation’s birthday, Panos worked 8 a.m. to midnight, subsisting on Aurelio’s Pizza ordered via speed dial. As manager, she oversees 15 workers who help customers pick from a selection that ranges from a $6 box of bottle rockets to the $700, 6-foot-tall “Godfather” combo pack. Every other day, a distributor stopped by to replenish supplies.

“People say, ‘You don’t get to do fireworks?’ No, this is my fireworks,” Panos said, gesturing toward the shop full of customers and colorful bundles of explosives.

Uncle Sam is one of about a dozen fireworks shops packed along Indiana’s border like a football team’s offensive line. In the weeks before July 4, they compete for the business of hordes of Chicagoland residents driving across the state line to escape Illinois’ ban on consumer fireworks.

The stakes are high. Greg Kaplan, owner of Krazy Kaplan’s Fireworks, said about 75 percent of his sales come from Illinois.

And a huge portion of the stores’ revenues come from sales leading up to July 4. Uncle Sam makes 85 percent of its sales from Memorial Day to July 4, Panos said, while Krazy Kaplan’s takes in 93 to 95 percent in that time. During the Fourth of July season, Kaplan supplements his year-round staff of about 15 full-time workers with about 250 part-timers.

Indiana’s fireworks stores got a boost in 2006 when the state loosened regulations, Panos said. Until then, customers could only shop at the stores if they showed an Indiana driver’s license and signed a contract saying they wouldn’t explode the devices in the state.

The looser laws have caused a proliferation of fireworks stores in recent years. The increasing popularity of fireworks also has helped. From 1998 to 2013, sales of consumer fireworks nationwide rose to $662 million from $284 million, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association.

Julie Heckman, the association’s executive director, attributed the growth to several factors, including a rise in patriotism after the Sept. 11 attacks and the recession, which led families to put on backyard fireworks displays rather than go on expensive trips.

With more stores, there’s more competition and slimmer profit margins, Kaplan said. At a maximum, he sells his products at two or three times the price he paid for them, and he has a lot of overhead from his buildings and staff, he said.

To catch Illinoisans’ business, store owners say it’s crucial to be as close to the border as possible. Uncle Sam sits in a former railroad station about 20 feet from the state line, but it’s not as close as nearby Discount Fireworks, on State Line Road. Kaplan’s main store is 3 miles from the border but visible from Interstate 94

“It’s location, location, location,” said Kaplan, who started selling fireworks from his basement in 1985 and now has seven Krazy Kaplan’s locations. “The closer to the state line, the better your business is going to be.”

Kaplan spends 6 to 10 percent of his store’s budget on advertising, including more than 250 billboards featuring a dynamite-holding, straitjacket-wearing mascot he drew himself 25 years ago.

Khaled Kiswani, who owns a small fireworks shop, American Independence Fireworks, in Hammond, said larger rivals have squeezed sales. When he opened 12 years ago, his fireworks sales were about four or five times what they are now, he said. He’s coped by diversifying — he also services computers and sells insurance and cigarettes. Fireworks are less than 10 percent of his sales.

“We do whatever it takes,” Kiswani said.

Illinois bans nearly all consumer fireworks, except small “novelty items.”

Meanwhile, 42 states allow all consumer fireworks permitted under federal law, including bottle rockets and Roman candles, according to the pyrotechnics association. Seven have loosened their laws since 2010, in large part to increase tax revenue, Heckman said.

“It’s really difficult and challenging to enforce this, and a lot of states saw how their neighboring states were generating a lot of tax revenue,” she said. “They were tired of seeing the money cross state lines.”

Queen Sister, who is from Chicago and bought $100 worth of fireworks Wednesday at Uncle Sam, said she would set them off at a campground near Indianapolis.

“I think it’s sad that during this celebration of independence we have to cross the state line to feel free,” said Sister, who said she has shopped at Uncle Sam for about 20 years.

Daniel Paz said he planned to take the Roman candles he bought Wednesday at Krazy Kaplan’s back to his Chicago neighborhood of Brighton Park. He said he plans to detonate them in an alley behind his house. To prevent fires, he’ll spray the alley with a hose beforehand.

Still, accidents happen. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that 8,700 injuries caused by fireworks were treated in emergency rooms in 2012, and the National Fire Protection Association estimates that 17,800 fires were caused by fireworks in 2011. During last year’s Fourth of July, a Chicago woman lost part of her leg to stray illegal fireworks in West Lawn Park.

Though they come to northwest Indiana seeking fireworks, Illinois residents sometimes linger for a burger. Tom Markovich, who owns Schoop’s Hamburgers in Whiting, said his sales go up 15 to 18 percent in the weeks before July 4, as customers from a nearby Krazy Kaplan’s come into his store for a meal.

There are downsides, though: Last year, someone tried to set off fireworks in the parking lot behind the restaurant.

 

Shop at work

It’s this kind of negative attitude that Daniel Wiebracht thrives on. Wiebracht is a “professional clothier” who counts Bentler among his devoted clients.

Wiebracht’s job is to keep you out of stores. He is the store. Wiebracht comes to your office, assesses your needs, shows you the stuff, takes your measurements, orders the clothes — down to the socks and boxer shorts if that’s what you want — and then delivers it all, waits for you to try it on and will take it back for further alterations if you don’t like the fit. “It’s the best deal ever,” said Bentler.

I’d always assumed that this was the kind of service that Michael Jordan, Donald Trump and Tom Cruise employ to outfit themselves for their busy lives as zillionaires. Many menswear shops will offer personal service if you spend a great deal of money at their stores.

But I’ve recently learned that the same thing is available to regular people with less astronomical incomes, retailphobics who just want to avoid shopping in stores but either don’t trust their own judgment or want the personal attention you can’t get shopping online.

“Our ready-made suits start at $359 and you get the same service as someone who is spending $4,000 on a suit,” said Wiebracht, a personable, well-dressed 23-year-old salesman. He works for a company called Tom James, a privately owned firm founded in Nashville in 1966 that does not advertise and relies on word of mouth to acquire its clients. (The company also does women’s business suits, but the vast majority of its clients are male.)

With 23 sales employees, the Tom James Chicago office is the largest of the firm’s 182 worldwide offices, a strong indicator that Chicago men are busier, lazier, more store averse — or all three — than their counterparts in other big cities.

The company makes many of its own fabrics and manufactures suits for its label as well as for many department store labels, claiming the title of “the world’s largest manufacturer and retailer of custom clothing.”

I met Dan Wiebracht and his supervisor, Eric Kean, 29, in the lobby of the Loop office building at 70 W. Madison St. where they were about to deliver a charcoal suit to Bentler — his first custom-made garment. When we arrived at the front desk of Smith Barney on the 51st floor, Wiebracht seemed to know everyone, even though he has only worked for the company since January. “Hi Emma,” he greeted the receptionist. “How you doing?”

Tom James sales territory is divvied up by building, which is why so many of the Smith Barney guys are Wiebracht clients. “Ryan, looking great!” Wiebracht greeted one man in shirt sleeves. “That’s one of my shirts,” Wiebracht boasted. “And my ties.

“The idea is to keep our client out of the stores,” explained Kean. This is why Tom James will even alter old suits bought somewhere else, just to prevent a client from the temptation of spending money in a store.

“If he goes to Brooks Brothers to tailor a suit, he might pick up a couple shirts — and we don’t want that,” said Kean. “The idea is to be a full-service clothier.”

In fact, that’s almost — but not entirely — true. You can’t buy exercise clothing or gym shoes from Tom James, and if you want underwear, it will cost you: boxers start at $19.75; T-shirts are $48 and boxer-briefs go for $42.

But custom-made suits start at $599 (and can cost as much as $13,999) with more than 500 fabrics to chose from. Custom shirts (250 fabrics) start at $79 (minimum of four) with ready-made starting at $59. Various sales can lower those prices.

“It’s really easy,” said Bentler. “They helped me catalog what I have and what I needed and basically fill holes in my wardrobe.”

On this visit, Bentler first tried on an old Brooks Brothers suit. Wiebracht charged $75 to alter it after Bentler lost 60 pounds (“I rediscovered exercise”) and dropped 10 inches off his waist. Then came the custom suit. “Great, great job,” said Bentler, buttoning up his new jacket.

That settled, Wiebracht pulled out a handful of handsome ties to go with the new suit. Bentler chose two (at $65 per) and declined the pitch for some custom shirts although he did seek some shirt advice. “What’s the deal with striping?” he asked.

Answer: Kean said striped suits are fine with both a striped shirt and a striped tie as long as the stripes in all three are different widths.

After a first visit that can last an hour (wardrobe evaluation is free and they’ll even come to your house if you want), most subsequent meetings take less than 15 minutes. “I’ve got clients who are, ‘All right, you’ve got two minutes!'” said Kean.