Thirty-two years after Rimrock Mall brought dozens of stores under a single roof and a decade after big-box stores became the rage along King Avenue West, the city's retail industry is experiencing yet another makeover.
New-to-the-market national retailers hope to make a splash in Billings by outmaneuvering competitors for market share.
In a recent seminar for the Billings Chamber of Commerce/Convention and Visitors Bureau, marketing expert Tom Egelhoff said retailers have two choices for bringing customers through the door. They can create a new customer by appealing to those who may be looking for a product or service for the first time. Or they can boost market share by stealing their competitors' customers, Egelhoff said.
Kohl's Inc., which opened an 88,000-square-foot department store at Shiloh Crossing on Oct. 1, is in the midst of an aggressive nationwide expansion that aims to capture market share for the 2008 holiday season. Kohl's, based in Menomonee Falls, Wis., opened 46 stores on the same day recently. Kohl's is a middle-market department store whose main competitors include J.C. Penney. With the expansion, Kohl's now has more than 1,000 stores in the U.S., about the same number as J.C. Penney.
"Until we opened, Montana was the last of the lower 48 states that didn't have a Kohl's," said Dannie Schwartz, manager of the Billings store.
Schwartz, a Montana native, has worked for Kohl's for six years and moved to Billings from Colorado. She's glad to be back in Montana, "but I had forgotten how much colder it is here," she said.
Schwartz said that opening 46 stores on the same day requires a tremendous amount of planning and coordination. Like many retailers, Kohl's uses specialized store-opening crews that stock shelves, erect displays and complete dozens of tasks before the doors open.
Company officials estimated that more than 1,000 people visited the Billings Kohl's store on opening day. While she can't provide specific sales figures, Schwartz said the Billings store's first month in Billings has been quite successful.
Sportsman's Warehouse, which opened its Billings store at 3676 Pierce Parkway last August, also used a special team of store openers to stock the shelves and get the store up and running.
"We've done this so many times," said Jeremy Sage, senior vice president of stores for Sportsman's Warehouse. "We have a specialized group of people who come in and do it."
Sage, who oversees the development of a growing family of Sportsman's Warehouse outlets, said the Billings store is the chain's forth in Montana, joining stores in Missoula, Bozeman and Helena.
"Montana has been a great market for us," he said.
Utah-based Sportsman's Warehouse plans to open stores in Visalia, Calif., and Las Vegas in early November, boosting the company's total to 68 stores nationwide.
Sage, who has worked for privately held Sportsman's Warehouse for 7½ years, said he had his choice of where to live and opted for Billings.
"I love the area, and I also have some family here," Sage said. "Also, I'm here primarily because of the abundance of outdoor activities."
The August opening allowed store managers to gear up for the fall hunting season. It also gave Sportsman's Warehouse at least a six-month head start in the Billings market before a formidable competitor opens its doors. Cabela's, the Nebraska outdoor retailing giant, put its Billings store on hold earlier this year, citing a difficult retail environment that forced the company to slow its expansion plans. Cabela's now hopes to open its Billings store next May.
Sage said going toe to toe with Cabela's is nothing new for Sportsman's Warehouse. "We compete in several markets with them, and we do just fine," he said, adding that Sportsman's Warehouse also competes with many other national and regional chains, such as Bass Pro Shops.
Many retail analysts have warned that the 2008 Christmas season could be a difficult one for retailers amid signs that cash-strapped consumers are cutting back on spending.
Billings store manager Doug Mason said Sportsman's Warehouse caters to people who are dedicated to Montana's outdoor culture. "As far as the economy goes, people aren't going to cut back on hunting and fishing," Mason said.
The latest figures from the Outdoor Industry Association, an organization of regional and national sporting goods retailers, supports that notion.
August 2008 sales for chain, specialty and Internet outdoor retailers totaled $348 million, a 12 percent gain compared with the same month in 2007, while sales in mainstream retailers have been flat or declining, the retail organization said. The association estimates that 205,000 Montana residents and out-of-state visitors participate in fishing each year, while 167,000 are involved hunting.
Shiloh Crossing developer Steve Corning said he's in the midst of "significant negotiations" to bring other national retailers to Shiloh Crossing.
Signs for a future City Brew and Candy Town USA, now at 896 S. 29th St. W., are posted on a mini-mall under construction at the commercial subdivision.
In June, Corning announced that Carmike Cinemas Inc. would build a 14-screen theater complex south of Kohl's. The theater should open in May.
One of Kohl's competitors, Macy's, is said to be interested in Shiloh Crossing, but so far nothing has been signed.
Negotiations are under way with other national retailers interested in the land between Kohl's and the Carmike complex, and another so-far-unnamed big fish is swimming around, Corning said.