In a tight economy, retailers must decide whether to abandon the traditional day of rest.
Graphic by Nick Orabovic

About a year and a half ago, Roberts Pool & Spa took up residence in Village Pointe, an upscale outdoor shopping mall in Omaha, Neb.

Though business initially thrived, sales in recent months have begun to dip.

“With the way business is going now, it makes no sense to stay open seven days a week,” says Mary Greise, vice president at Roberts.

But the real questions are: When can she afford to take time off? And what’s the best day?

Sunday has traditionally been reserved for rest, faith and family, and many retailers treat it as sacrosanct. Additionally, it may make more fiscal sense to stay closed than depend on store location and traffic patterns.

But in today’s marketplace every sale is precious, and who can justify shutting their doors if the competition remains open for business?

Here, experts make the case for why Sunday may or may not be a good time to keep the lights on.

Closed on Sunday

In the five years prior to opening the store in Village Pointe, Roberts Pool & Spa shared a shopping center with one of the region’s largest furniture stores.

At that time, Greise followed a straightforward formula to establish her store hours.

“Basically we took on the hours of Nebraska Furniture Mart — 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week,” she recalls. “But, we were wrong.”

After 6 months, Greise realized the plan was flawed. For one, business was slow. She examined Sundays first, and discovered that store traffic seemed to drop off around 5 p.m., about the time darkness descends in the Omaha winter. They were lucky to see more than two customers between 6 and 9 p.m.

Add to that electricity costs, as well as the expense of paying hourly employees, and Sunday was proving more trouble than treasure. “It just wasn’t profitable,” Greise says.

Other retailers have experimented with the Sunday model only to reach similar conclusions.

Lake Norman Pool & Spa in North Carolina kept its Cornelius store open seven days a week from April to August 2007. A skeleton crew of two or three employees (about half the weekday staff) ran the Sunday show from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Management promoted the expanded hours ahead-of-time through targeted mailers, as well as advertising in newspapers and online. But according to assistant manager Nick Blazek, the program failed to gain traction. There simply weren’t enough shoppers to justify the cost of operating.

Meantime, in central Florida, at least one retailer has concluded the area lacks the customer base to support a seven-day operation.

“We just don’t get the traffic — Winter Haven is dead on Sundays,” says Elaine Allen, retail representative at Paradise Place Outdoor Living.

However, a new Lakeland location is scheduled to open in February/March 2009, she reports. It will be situated in a strip mall anchored by a large regional supermarket chain. And, Allen says, “the ZIP code we’re moving to has a very high ratio of pools per capita, and no pool stores relatively close by.”

“We expect higher Sunday traffic there,” she continues. “So keeping the store open is definitely something we’ll consider.

“But I don’t want to be the one working!” she adds with a laugh.

Open on Sunday

Tim Kelly wouldn’t dream of giving his competition an advantage. The owner of Colony Pool Service Inc. in Wilmington, Del., is surrounded by pool and spa stores — at least four within a mile radius. And they’re all open on Sundays.

“It’s a necessary evil,” Kelly says. “You have to do it because everyone else is.”

Beginning in mid-April and continuing through October, Colony’s three part-time employees mind the shop Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. A store manager is always available, though typically not on-site.

In-season, it’s one of Kelly’s two busiest days.

“People like to come in after church, or before heading out for a round of golf,” he says of his Sunday shoppers. “They usually want to have their water tested or to pick up a bucket of chlorine. You might get an impulsive buy like a pool cleaner or toys, but mostly it’s the staples, which is really our bread and butter.”

For Greise, Sundays run the gamut, from the browser to the big-ticket buyer. It’s when couples and families shop together, and often when large decisions are made, she says.

But it isn’t the competition that keeps Greise open. In fact, of the seven hot tub retailers in Omaha, not one stays open Sundays, she reports.

So while Greise still desires a day off, the solution isn’t so clear-cut. Currently she’s leaning toward Monday.

“There’s no way I would be closed on a Sunday during the summer,” she says. “You have to ask yourself, ‘What’s the best decision for the business?’ Sunday is one of our three busiest days, and it’s a big-ticket item day. You just never know the opportunity that’s going to come through the door.”

Kathy Jurgens, co-owner of WCI Pools and Spas, manages two stores, in Ames and Urbandale, Iowa. Both stay open Sundays during swim season from noon to 4 p.m.

The Ames store, however, closes Sunday in winter. “It’s too cold in the Midwest,” Jurgens says. “People just aren’t out and about as much as they are in summer. So it gives us a little break.”

In Urbandale, just outside Des Moines, it’s a different story. Starting in December, the store closes one day a week for two months. But this time, it’s a Monday.

“We’re open all weekend in Urbandale because the competition demands it – everyone [here] is open Sundays,” Jurgens explains.

Why Sundays

In November, retail sales nationwide posted their biggest monthly decline in five years, according to economic data released the following month. This includes shopping over the critical “Black Friday” weekend, which often makes up the majority of annual retail business.

The numbers, in a nutshell, foretell a difficult 2009.

So what does this mean for retailers bent on boosting their bottom lines? Does it make sense to save the overhead — and give yourself a breather — by closing shop on Sunday?

Excluding special circumstances, the experts generally discourage it.

“Why give your customer a reason to go somewhere else?” says Doug Fleener, president and managing partner at retail consulting firm Dynamic Experiences Group, Lexington, Mass. “You need to drive traffic to your store, especially in today’s economic climate.”

Fleener says some retailers test out Sundays in the hopes that, oddly, they won’t succeed. They may try it only for a short period. And with little promotion, most are doomed to fail.

One of the keys, Fleener says, is to ask yourself: “What are the customer’s expectations? And then, can I align the customer’s expectations with my need to be profitable?”

It may only require a short staff, or truncated hours, but overall, you must be an available resource for your clients, Fleener insists.

“The customer who desperately needs you will be forever grateful if you’re open on Sunday,” he says.

Recently, distribution giant PoolCorp celebrated its 100th Backyard Place. The retail branding program, launched in 2007, provides participating partners with broad-based sales and marketing support. Within that model lies an important stipulation: Retailers must keep their stores open for 20 hours from 5 p.m. Friday to 5 p.m. Sunday.

“If you’re serious about retailing, there’s really no other option — you must stay open on Sunday,” says Manuel J. Perez de la Mesa, CEO of the Covington, La.-based company. “Fundamentally speaking, if you have that retail space you’ve got to utilize it. There are just certain times when a retailer should always be open.”

According to Perez de la Mesa, the peak sales periods generally take place on weekends from 7 a.m. to noon. So closing the store at 2 or 4 p.m. on a Sunday is no big deal, he says, but “you have to be open during those peak hours.”

As evidence, he cites the fact that nearly 70 percent of sales for Home Depot and Lowe’s take place between Friday evening and Sunday afternoon.

“It’s the most important 48 hours of the week for those two,” he says.

And the shopper that frequents a Home Depot also buys chemicals at a pool store. So, he maintains, if you’re closed anytime in that peak selling period, “you’re essentially giving business to Home Depot.”

Ultimately, it may just come down to priorities, says George Whalin, president and CEO of Retail Management Consultants in Carlsbad, Calif. Does staying open on Sunday accommodate your life, or your customers’?

“Customers are busy people — they lead busy lives,” Whalin says. “You’ve got to give them every opportunity to see your wares.

“But we all tend to look at things that are in our best interest,” he adds. “If you’re not there to serve their needs, they’ll probably dismiss you, and they might never come back.”