Does retail still have a pulse?

In the midst of a ''retail apocalypse," the owner of the Nevada Gift Shop and Visitors Center is optimistic.

Nevada Gift Shop and Visitors Center owner Dave Asher points out one of his favorite photos, a shot of a lightning storm over downtown Reno from Kevin Cooper and Andy Horstmanshoff’s Mindful Images Photography.

Nevada Gift Shop and Visitors Center owner Dave Asher points out one of his favorite photos, a shot of a lightning storm over downtown Reno from Kevin Cooper and Andy Horstmanshoff’s Mindful Images Photography.

Photo/Kris Vagner

The new Nevada Gift Shop and Visitors Center is in space D100 in Outlets at Legends, 1310 Scheels Drive, Sparks. A grand opening celebration is scheduled 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Nov. 30.

“It’s like a well-oiled machine already,” said Dave Asher. That was on the morning of Nov. 4, the day his new Nevada Gift Shop and Visitors Center opened in Legends mall in Sparks. So far, he’d been in business for 15 minutes. An employee cheerfully swept the already clean-looking floor tiles. A trickle of shoppers was already browsing Wolf Pack T-shirts and framed photographs of wild horses. Commercially made souvenirs like Reno Arch snow globes and University of Nevada, Reno-branded water bottles were arranged in neat lines on shelves, and so were local goods like cantaloupe jam from Fernley’s Lattin Farms, Nevada-themed mugs from Sharon Randall’s Copper Kiln pottery studio in Minden, and honey from Al Bees—which started in Elko County and now has hives in Reno, Carson City and Gardnerville.

“I’m taking out the dressing rooms,” Asher said, pointing to the back corner. The former tenant was a clothing store. “There’ll be a little waiting area, a seating area. I’m creating a kiosk—where to go, what to do. Trails, shopping, restaurants.”

In the spring, Asher plans to start selling and renting ebikes, which he hopes that tourists will ride on the nearby Veterans Parkway bike path, where they might catch a glimpse of actual wild horses.

It’s not news that brick-and-mortar retail stores have had a rough few years. The U.S. Department of Commerce announced in April that online sales had just eclipsed in-person sales. This year alone, chains as longstanding as Dollar Tree, Gap and CVS announced closures and bankruptcies, and media outlets have been using the term “retail apocalypse” in headlines for a while now. Yet, a beaming Asher showed no signs of first-day jitters. And his sunny outlook can’t exactly be attributed to beginners’ optimism.

The long haul

“I started Sport Haus exotic car showroom,” Asher said, recounting some highlights of his career in retail. “I built the racetrack in Fernley, Reno-Fernley Raceway. I have a 25-year track record here in town of grocery in Costco warehouse market.”

photo/kris vagner

In 2010, with the local economy still reeling from the Recession, Asher was between jobs. He learned about the Buy Local movement and soon became a proponent.

“I started networking,” he said. “There was this new thing called Facebook. And Google. So I started telling everybody on Facebook, ’Hey, buy local’ … I became the crazy buy local guy.”

He hosted a “buy local” event at Reno Town Mall during the holiday shopping season. As Asher recalls it, “The mall owner said, ’Hey boy, I like what you’re doing. You want a store?’ And I said, ’Aw, hell no, I don’t want a store.’ He called me in March and said, ’This is your store. It’s 4,000 square-feet.” Asher, in a partnership with the mall owner, opened the Buy Nevada First Gift Shop & Visitors Center in 2014. The reason it became part visitors center, he said, is “because I’m across from the convention center and the Atlantis.”

The store increased to a cavernous 20,000 square-feet after the neighboring Burlington downsized. (Until recently, the national discount retail chain was called “Burlington Coat Factory.” The truncated name is part of a 2018 rebrand.)

The original gift shop is laid out like an antiques mall, where 300 individual vendors each pay an annual membership for a dedicated space and a suite of marketing and retail support services. Goods include candies, coffees and other food items made in the region, and artist-made items such a clothing, jewelry, greeting cards, housewares, and 2-D artworks in mats or frames. Asher said that with 120 artisans and artists in the store, he sells more Nevada artwork than any single source in the state.

At first, the business struggled. “That’s a tough mall,” Asher said. Reno Town Mall opened in 1972. It still sports the dark, brick-lined interior of its era, and fellow tenants include a small handful of retailers, a radio station and branches of the Washoe County Library and Nevada Job Connect.

“I didn’t have any money for payroll for nine months,” Asher said. “I worked seven days a week for nine months. Retail’s tough.” He said that increasing the store’s size helped, and so did teaming up with the mall’s owner on television and radio ads. (Asher said that a re-brand for the entire mall is underway that will include new retail and “some really nice restaurants,” which he’s not at liberty to name yet.)

photo/kris vagner

The latest trends

In an era when chain stores are closing and online retail is soaring, it turns out that a few sectors of retail are actually thriving—for a few different reasons.

Asher observed, about his neighboring tenant in Reno Town Mall: “Burlington’s booming,” even despite the reduced square footage. “There’s always 50 cars in their parking lot. They rebranded … and I’ve watched who goes in there. It’s minorities who are doing well. They’re driving the Escalades. They don’t want to go to Savers. They don’t want to go to Target. But they’re not going to go to Macy’s.”

According to the fashion retail trade publication Footwear News, Burlington customers “are typically 39 or younger, African-American or Hispanic and earn around $64,000 to $77,000 annually,” and the 2018 rebrand led to an increase in Burlington’s stock price from $30 a share to $180. “Off-price” retailers like this one are among those who are doing well.

Another indicator of retail success was outlined in a Forbes article defining the top retail trends of 2018: “More and more, consumers are shopping with their emotions instead of their wallets. Indeed, millennials’ changing preferences and attitudes regarding corporate responsibility, social consciousness, and more have already impacted how retail brands present and position themselves.”

And buying local is among their priorities.

Brad Scribner from the Nevada Small Business Development Center, when asked for data on the benefits of buying local, pointed out an often cited 2018 study by American Express, reporting that for every dollar spent locally, 67 cents stays in the community. That study doesn’t say what percentage of a chain-store purchase stays local, but an oft-cited 2012 study by Civic Economics, a business consulting firm, puts the figure at 13.6 percent.

Perhaps more importantly, according to industry publication Small Biz Daily, “The buy local movement is all about telling the story of small businesses. … Compelling data can—and does—make customers listen, but it’s not the only story small businesses have to tell.”

As for Asher, he’s in conversation with a downtown developer and the Chamber of Commerce, and he’s hopeful that he’ll open two more stores soon.