Two retail business developments in Calais are ending the year on a positive note. The discount clothing store Label Shopper is expected to open in mid‑November. The Northeast chain will be located downtown in the 8,000-square-foot former Unobskey School building. Also, according to city officials, a Walmart expansion and store spruce‑up worth an estimated $10 million will start over the summer of 2012 and be finished sometime in 2013.
Alexandra Serra, senior manager of government policies and public affairs for Walmart's New England region, says the project has not gone out to bid yet and construction and opening dates cannot be confirmed at this time. However, she can confirm that the expanded store will add about 50 new positions, a combination of full‑time and part‑time staff.
Calais has been a service and retail center for the region for years but, like other Downeast communities, has seen many of its shoppers from both sides of the border head to Bangor, Brewer and Ellsworth, where they spend a significant portion of their disposable income. The tide may be slowly turning for a combination of reasons. A five‑hour, round‑trip drive and $30 to $75 in gas may influence purchasing decisions, as shoppers become increasingly concerned about their budgets.
Calais Mayor Joseph Cassidy notes, "We talk frequently that it isn't just Calais selling to Calais, it's the region." He adds that the city looks at the developments in the area, from Eastport's port to Baileyville's mill and beyond and asks, "How can we build on that? We want to try to get it back to be self‑sufficient in meeting the region's needs."
"There's a reason why they're coming to Calais," says Calais City Manager Diane Barnes of the retail developments. While some people are wary of big-box stores like Walmart and their impact on downtowns, Barnes points out that many area shoppers already go to the Walmart supercenters in Penobscot and Hancock counties. Bringing those shoppers back to the region with the Calais Walmart expansion may be the beginning of a beneficial change. Serra says, "For sure there are advantages to having grocery stores in our stores -- for sustainability issues." That five-hour drive, she says, can be avoided by customers choosing to shop at the local Walmart rather than one in another region.
"The more people who stay around here to shop, the better," Barnes comments. The Label Shopper will "help the downtown with increased foot traffic. I think it's wonderful that they chose the downtown." Cassidy adds, "It's a good fit for what we can provide." Both developments, Barnes says, will have beneficial spin‑off effects on the local economy.
The Walmart will add a 24,000-square-foot addition to its existing store, with an expanded grocery component that Serra says came "out of community demand." A Paradis Shop n' Save is right next door, and owner Greg Paradis says that having this type of competition side‑by‑side to his store "is a new game for us." The Maine man has owned the store since 2000 and has five other Shop n' Save stores around the state, one other of which has a traditional Walmart as a neighbor. "We're going to continue to run as we have," he says. "We are 100% customer service" oriented and "will continue to support local civic nonprofits as we have." The Shop n' Save has supported school programs, the Shriners and others. Walmart also supports local nonprofit efforts.
Niche company finds its distribution stride
Label Shopper, a division of Peter Harris Clothes, moved into the Maine market in 2008 with stores in Oxford and Skowhegan. It has since opened stores in Dover‑Foxcroft, Houlton, Jay and Lincoln. Founder and CEO Peter Elitzer is delighted to have his company serving Mainers. "We like smaller markets. ... When we get in smaller communities they love us and we love them." The store offers manufacturer overruns or cancellations of clothing and accessories for men, women and children discounted at 25% to 70% off the original price.
Elitzer founded Peter Harris Clothes in 1970 and Label Shopper in 1987. "It's a slightly smaller version of Peter Harris," he says of the chain. Maine, because of its size, can present distribution challenges for retailers. "We looked long and hard before going into Maine," Elitzer explains. "We knew that we had to cluster stores in order to make it work." The company's headquarters are in Albany, N.Y.
The company is waiting on a few logistics before the construction crew can get into the downtown Calais location and work its magic on the interior. "We're hoping for mid‑November. The landlord has signed off, but permits need to be approved before the contractors can get in." He adds, "If that doesn't work, then we'll probably wait until spring." On October 26 the company's permit application for a sign was approved by the city's planning board, and Jim Porter, assistant city manager, notes that Label Shopper is moving towards its target date.
Like any retail operator and most customers, Elitzer would like to see the store open for the holiday season. The store will be open seven days a week and will have two full‑time employees, a manager and assistant manager. In addition, Elitzer anticipates another eight to 10 part‑time employees will be hired.
His company's experience in Maine has been positive in all ways. "The people we hire have just been terrific. They have such a great positive attitude with great ideas."