Scuttlebiz: Getting retail info like pulling teeth

For an industry whose fortune is tied to mass-market brand recognition and appreciation, national retailers can be surprisingly secretive.

 

From my standpoint, the only businesses more tight-lipped are military contractors and multinational manufacturers. But their desires for obscurity seem halfway reasonable: They have valuable intellectual property, their competitors are big and global, and they are constantly on the prowl for state and local tax breaks.

Why a plus-size apparel company or a taco bar, however, would steadfastly refuse to give information about their new stores is beyond me. But it happens all the time.

A good local example of this cloak-and-dagger rubbish is the German grocery store chain Lidl, which is engaged with rival discount grocer Aldi in a real estate battle that reminds me of the CVS-Eckerd drugstore war that hit Augusta in the late 1990s.

Lidl has scouted local real estate since 2014. It has no fewer than two stores under construction. And it has plans on file to build two more. The cat is not only out of the bag but also was last seen running across the state line. Yet Lidl refuses to say a single word about its local buildout.

Here’s the stock answer I get: “We have not announced specific store locations or construction timelines at this time.”

The company must think the dozens of workers laying brick and installing windows are invisible. I can only assume businesses think their websites and social media are enough to spread the word. But if that were the case, they wouldn’t employ PR staffs to persuade the news media to cover grand-opening and ribbon-cutting celebration.

By the way, I’ll put our web metrics up against theirs any day of the week.

It’s one thing when national retailers and real estate companies decline to respond to rumors. But playing coy after acquiring real estate or filing blueprints for a new store? That’s a mind-bending exercise in the suspension of reality.

A couple of recent examples of companies that think they can hide projects in plain sight are Chipotle Mexican Grill and MOD Pizza.

Neither eatery will acknowledge the restaurants scheduled to occupy an outparcel building that Augusta Exchange shopping center owner Kimco Realty Corp. is building in front of the Target store. The Augusta Chronicle reported these plans two months ago, but the companies and their representatives continue to proceed as though neither project exists.

When New Jersey-based Burlington began soliciting bids in March to retrofit the 44,000-square-foot space at Augusta Exchange shopping center formerly occupied by Sports Authority, the only response I could get from the company was this: “At the present time, we are unable to comment on Burlington’s involvement in the Augusta region.”

Two weeks later (after I had already reported the construction work), the same company spokeswoman sent me a news release about the “new store” coming to Augusta, as if it were the first time we had ever spoken.

In addition to being ill-informed, national retail spokespeople can, at best, be aggressively unhelpful and purposely vague – that’s why they like email; they don’t have to answer direct questions – and at worst be downright dishonest.

For example, an Atlanta-based Whole Foods Market spokeswoman flat-out lied in early February when she told me Augusta’s store was not closing. This, by the way, was at least two full days after her Austin, Texas-based corporate counterparts had made their decision and told Augusta employees their last day was Feb. 22.

I was a bit steamed, for the attempt to mislead me could have caused me to inadvertently mislead you. But my complaints fell on deaf ears – with the company pulling out of Augusta, her colleagues seemed to take a Hillaryesque “at this point, what difference does it make?” view of the situation.

If I wanted to carpet-bomb the entire PR industry, I would not mention the scores of retail chain spokespeople who have been delightful to work with over the years, such as the communications team from Minneapolis-based Best Buy. They even passed through Augusta this year on a tour of stores in the Southeast. I spent nearly two hours chatting with them and showing them around downtown (they really wanted to see the James Brown statue).

Bottom line: PR staffers, good or bad, are often all a reporter has to work with – what they say is what they say.

Case in point: Sprouts Farmers Market.

This Phoenix-based natural supermarket chain is going to anchor a lifestyle center near the Walton Way Extension exit on Interstate 20. But that’s not according to the grocer; that’s according to an Atlanta-based commercial real estate firm.

What does Spouts have to say about that?: “We have not announced any Augusta stores.”

There you have it, folks: Sprouts has no plans for a store in Augusta … that is, until they do. And then it’s up to them to decide when they want to tell you about it.

MORE ON RETAIL: Is Augusta’s Gander Mountain store closing or not?

You’re probably better off flipping a coin than seeking my opinion.

It’s true that Marcus Lemonis, the CEO of Camping World and a CNBC celebrity, purchased certain assets of the bankrupt St. Paul, Minn.-based outdoor retailer last month and – through Twitter – put Augusta’s store on a list of 70 that will remain open. But it’s also true the local store is still advertising “liquidation” sales, including in this newspaper.

And it’s also true that if you go to the company’s website, the first thing you’ll see is a huge “Going out of Business!” page.

What does the company spokesman say?: “I have not been given a definitive word on the situation there.” Like everyone else, he’s following Lemonis’ tweets, which he calls “currently the most up-to-date and accurate source of information.”

The way I see it, there are two outcomes for the 54,000-square-foot space. One, it will close and sit vacant for several months (or years) until an enterprising investor finds something to do with it. Two, Lemonis will in fact keep the store open, rename it Gander Outdoors and fold in his Overton boating and Camping World RV businesses.

Obviously, I’m rooting for outcome two. There’s enough empty big boxes in this town already.

BIG, EMPTY AND CONDEMNED: Wouldn’t it be nice if the community could pull together to renovate the historic Imperial Theatre and The Modjeska the way it is rebuilding the Miller Theater?

The Imperial is presentable, but needs a seven-figure check to make it shine. The Modjeska, on the other hand, is not even safe to occupy. That’s according to the condemnation notice on the property at 813 Broad St., which last saw use as a nightclub several years ago.

It’s never been on Historic Augusta’s “Endangered List,” but perhaps its increasingly shabby appearance will earn it a spot when the next list comes out in the fall.

Owner Zia Amadi told me he has plans for the building but declined to discuss specifics.

“Right now I don’t have the time to talk about it,” he said. “Later on, I’ll let you know.”

UP TO CODE: I imagine much of the cost to bring the Modjeska up to code involves fire protection. When I was interviewing Vinnie Ingallinera recently about the Source Code Escape Games attraction he’s building at 1025 Broad St., he mentioned one of the most expensive parts of building the 7,600-square-foot escape room complex was walls that met “entertainment” venue fire codes.

Downtown property owner Rafik Bassali said the big delay in getting his property at 1289 Broad St. – the former Planned Parenthood building – converted into a nightclub involves utility work for fire suppression systems. He said his tenants hope to have the bar open within two months.

OMG: Tin Drum Asian Kitchen has closed. Agerton Lane just won’t be the same without some Pad Woon Sen, which I thought was the place’s best-tasting and naughtiest-sounding dish. The place opened in 2012.

THIS PLACE, ON THE OTHER HAND: One restaurant that probably won’t be going away anytime soon is Sandwich City, which this year celebrates its 45th year in downtown Augusta. The go-to breakfast and lunch spot for members of Augusta’s old-school professional elite makes a mean meatloaf. And some pretty good sandwiches. If you haven’t been there in a while, check ’em out at 302 10th St.

GET WORK ON WYLDS: Augusta’s Virginia College campus is holding its Career Fair on Monday, May 22, from 1-4 p.m. at 2807 Wylds Road. The free event is open to the public and will feature employers such as Teleperformance USA, Medical Associates Plus, Advanced Pain Management, University Health Care System and Christ Community Health Services. You might even win a Kindle Fire or an Amazon gift card, but you’re not going to get bupkis unless you register at (706) 288-2500.

R.I.P.: The metro area has lost quite a few titans of business this year. Edwin Pollock, a lifelong resident and founder of Pollock Co., died in January at age 94. That same month, we lost construction and real estate magnate Dessey L. Kuhlke, 75. Auto dealer Duncan Johnson Sr., who supplied the Masters Tournament with courtesy Cadillacs for decades, died in March at age 72.

An Augusta native who became one of Florida’s most prominent business and political figures, Francis A. “Mike” Calhoun Jr., died last month at age 90 in Miami. His family, by the way, was the “Calhoun” in Blanchard & Calhoun Real Estate.

And just this past week we lost C. Preston Sizemore, 81, the longtime president of Sizemore Inc., the temporary personnel, janitorial and contract security service firm. The multistate company, now run by his son, Preston E. Sizemore, is opening new corporate offices at the former Gerald Jones Mazda dealership on Gordon Highway.

JUST DOWN THE ROAD A WAYS: At Fort Gordon, the new Marine/Navy disc golf course will be one of the venues holding the Professional Disc Golf Association’s 2017 PDGA Professional Disc Golf World Championships on June 21-24. The event also will be held at the W.R. Jackson course at the International Disc Golf Center in Appling’s Wildwood Park.

The Augusta Sports Council, which jointly announced the event with the PDGA this month, gave no estimates on the number of participants or economic impact, but the 2016 National Collegiate Disc Golf Championship at the Hippodrome in North Augusta pumped nearly $500,000 into the local economy, according to the Augusta Convention & Visitors Bureau.

WILL HUNT FOR INDUSTRY: Hats off to Will Williams, the CEO of the Economic Development Partnership in Aiken, who was named the South Carolina Economic Developers’ Association’s “Local Developer of the Year” during its annual conference this month. Williams, a member of the organization for 20 years, is pretty much the point man for all-things-industry in Aiken, Edgefield and Saluda counties.

You might remember him from the team that landed Trenton, S.C.’s $1.2 billion Bridgestone off-road plant in 2014, which at the time was the single largest capital investment in Palmetto State history.

He deserves at least a plaque for that.

DAM GOOD SUSTAINABILITY: The New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam has been in the news quite a bit lately. The critical piece of river infrastructure creates the pool of water in the Savannah River that the region relies on for drinking water and industry.

One of those industrial uses is the Kimberly-Clark Corp.’s plant in Beech Island, which produces Huggies, Cottonelle, Kleenex and Scott brand products. Tissue mills use a lot of water, but the local plant was recently recognized for its efforts to recycle and reuse wastewater, resulting in 200 million fewer gallons drawn from the river each year.

The plant recently received RISI Inc.’s Pulp & Paper International Water Efficiency Award for implementing technology that saves enough water to fill more than 300 Olympic-size swimming pools.

Plant Manager John Pownall said in a statement that the investment will make the mill “more efficient and cost-effective over the long term.”

“Managing Kimberly-Clark’s demand on such a critical water resource in a fast-growing region is the right thing to do and we appreciate this recognition,” he said. He chimed in on the dam’s condition.

“Our employees also appreciate that members of Congress stepped up last year to finally authorize funding for repair or replacement of the lock and dam,” he said. “With so many businesses and residents depending on the water behind that dam, its current condition is a significant risk to the water supply and jobs in the area. The Army Corps of Engineers has nearly 200 years of experience building and managing lock and dam projects, so we’re relieved the agency has been engaged to design and build a solution.”

In 2008, the mill also was recognized for its use of reclaimed landfill gas from the nearby Three Rivers Solid Waste Authority, which helped the plant avoid burning 1.6 trillion BTUs of natural gas between 2010 and 2015, which is enough to power 12,000 homes for a year.

You have to assume some of that landfill gas is generated by from discarded Huggies. Ponder that one for a while.

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3352 or damon.cline@augustachronicle.com.

 

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