NEWS

Retailers optimistic despite poor national outlook

Chris Dettro

Area merchants aren’t willing to settle for flat, whatever the national forecasts for holiday sales this year.

A National Retail Federation prediction of a “paltry” 1.9 percent increase in per-person spending on holiday gifts this year would be the smallest increase since the federation began releasing the annual forecast in 2002.

With the backing of a variety of “buy local” promotions, Springfield-area retailers said they expect to beat the national forecast and then some. Christmas merchandise also has joined jack-o-lanterns and other Halloween goodies in local stores as retailers attempt to get a start on the crucial shopping season.

About 40 percent of shoppers in the national survey indicated they would start shopping before Halloween. The NRF survey showed consumers plan to spend an average $832.36 on holiday gifts this season compared to $816.69 in 2007.

“We are really going to be pushing the ‘buy local’ concept,” said Victoria Clemons, executive director of Downtown Springfield Inc. “Put your money where your house is.”

Holiday promotions at White Oaks Mall are still in the works, said Stephen Hunt, area strategic director of mall marketing.

“We’re following along the lines of what we traditionally do,” he said. “That includes looking at the mall overall as a one-stop shopping place.” He said promotions would include “door buster” events for early shoppers.

“One we haven’t done in a while is gift wrapping, and we’re partnering with local charities to offer that again this year,” Hunt said.

He said the mall merchants he’s talked to also are optimistic.

“I think you’ll start seeing some sales a little earlier than normal, but not as early as the larger stores (such as Wal-Mart and Target),” he said.

Gloria Jean’s Coffees at White Oaks is giving away a travel mug with the purchase of two pounds of coffee. But co-owner Larry Sturm said giveaways aren’t the key to a successful season.

“The cost of everything has increased, but we’re trying to stay at the same prices we had last year,” he said. “But the key to our business is traffic flow, and filling up the empty stores, which is starting to happen.”

He said gift packs are good, but the heart of his sales comes from shoppers stopping by for a drink.

“Last month was the first month that our sales were down from the previous one,” he said.  “But we’re optimistic. It seems like everybody always comes out at Christmastime.”

Gizzy Lu, a pet products store at White Oaks, plans a pet fashion show for the holidays.

“Our sales have doubled over what they were last year, but we’ve expanded the store, too,” said Brad Leezer, co-owner.

“The pet business isn’t expected to decline nationally — at least that’s what they were saying two or three weeks ago,” he said. “If I was in Chicago, or in one of those cities hit by the housing crisis, I would be worried.”

Clemons said Downtown Springfield Inc. has scheduled evening holiday walks, when stores will extend hours, for five nights between Dec. 3 and Dec. 18.

“We’ve added three or four different attractions to the walks,” she said. “We’re going to have a holiday train and hope to have a giant Christmas tree in the plaza. We’re also going to have live reindeer out there.”

A “men’s night out” is planned for Dec. 18 as part of the DSI promotion. Women who attend earlier holiday walks can fill out wish lists for their male counterparts.

“It’s the last Thursday before Christmas, and they’ll get this list that tells them where to get what’s on it,” said Amy Hathaway, co-owner of Shoetopia, 413 E. Adams St. “I think that will be fun.”

The Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce has joined DSI and several media outlets, including The State Journal-Register, in a $35,000 marketing campaign to encourage people to support local retailers.

Starting Nov. 6, shoppers can register for $50 in merchandise or a gift card with participating merchants. Winners will have their name entered for a grand prize of a $1,000 shopping spree, said Sarah Wolin, director of communications for the chamber.

“We’re still signing up merchants, but we’re hoping for more than 50,” Wolin said.

“We understand these are uncertain economic times and our hope is that this will raise the exposure of local businesses and help their holiday experience,” she said.

The MacArthur Boulevard Business Association plans a promotion that vice-chairman Michelle Higginbotham said generally will be based on “The 12 Days of Christmas.”

“Merchants will contribute prizes and people may register at those businesses,” she said. “We expect to have a grand prize in the $1,000 range and 12 smaller ones,” she said.

Design Ideas is coming back to the area with its holiday closeouts store at the former CVS building at Town & Country Shopping Center. The Springfield company makes home and office accessories and decorations.

This year the store will be open from the Friday after Thanksgiving to Dec. 27, rather than the 10 days it was open last year.

“We’re excited to have them back and especially for an extended time frame,” Higginbotham said.

The past few holiday seasons have seen consumers scrambling for electronics, and this year should be no different, said John Kerstein, general manger of Best Buy in Springfield.

Without predicting strong holiday sales, Kerstein said, “We don’t expect our results will be the same as the retail industry as a whole. Our results haven’t been the same so far.”

Chris Dettro can be reached at (217) 788-1510 orchris.dettro@sj-r.com.