US retailers court foreign tourists

Call it reverse retail promotion. US merchants are rapidly learning what smart retailers overseas have known for a long time: It pays to reach out and cater to that tourist business.

For years Harrod's in London has circulated a multilingual pamphlet describing its various departments and services. To back it up, it has maintained a well-identified foreign-language-speaking staff, available for even individial chaperone-type guidance at any time.

This year, although the final count cannot be guesed right now, there will be more foreign visitors coming to the US than there will be Americans going overseas. The reasons, travel experts say, lie in cheaper air fares, more package tours, and a favorable dollar exchange. And with all this influx, American retailers have sharpened up and are trying to learn how to make it easier for foreigners to buy while they are here.

Macy's staff in San Francisco wear buttons identifying the second (or third) language which that salesperson speaks. Window plaques in bay area shops and boutiques continue to blossom not only with the familiar ici-on-parle-Franciasm and Se-habla-Espanolm invitations but now also display the phrase in German and many Oriental characters.

Summer sales to foreign tourists have bolstered retail business on the West Coast -- and nobody has been able to tote up the projected total yet on this, either. But the final figure is expected to be sizable. California merchants have welcomed the foreign influx, in the face of slow domestic business.

"We're not talking about just souvenirs," said one vice-president of merchandizing. "What is selling to foreigners is largely our regular goods, with prices in the higher brackets no deterrent at all. Many items of our basic lines are selling, too, in multiple units -- stuff to take home to the family and friends. And one small thing -- they love our gift-wrapping."

US retail prices, while considered high in many cases by residents are still (even with US sales tax added) lower than prices of similar goods in London or Hong Kong.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.