Shoppers will have a little less time for Christmas shopping this year if they follow the tradition of waiting until Thanksgiving is over to begin checking their lists.
Thanksgiving fell unusually late this year, cutting the season to just four weeks. But that may be good for some local shops, as last-minute shopping tends to be in-person shopping.
“Consumers tend to spend more at local brick-and-mortar retailers when they are pressed for time, said Ellen Ford, a marketing communications specialist with the San Francisco-based firm Womply. “E-commerce is certainly convenient, but it has a shelf life. The closer we get to a major holiday, the less realistic it is as an option.”
That should hearten local stores, even though other prognosticators describe online shopping behavior as growing more prevalent all the time. A study by Leanplum, a multi-channel engagement platform, said 95 percent of consumers are choosing to do at least half their holiday shopping online this year.
Still, local stores and shopping malls expect to do a major portion of their business between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year as always.
“We’re the perfect place for a last-minute gift. No question about that,” said Mike Kauffman, general manager of Eastview Mall.
Christmas decorations, holiday music and personal service give shoppers an experience they just can’t have online, local retailers said. Not to mention the ability to sit on Santa’s lap, smell a hand-made candle and meet an author before you buy their book.
“The future success (of brick-and-mortar stores) relies on entertainment and experiential situations that online and the internet just don’t provide,” Kauffman said.
Shoppers can probably find books much cheaper online, says Lift Bridge Book Shop co-owner John Bonczyk but they just can’t find the personal service that a real, live, independent bookstore provides. They can come into a store like Lift Bridge and ask the staff for help picking out a book that will please a 10-year-old boy they know, even though they don’t know what the boy is into or like to read, he said.
The selection in the store reflects his and co-owner Sarah Bonczyk’s understanding of what the local community wants, rather than what publishers are promoting.
“No one sent me a box of books and said, ‘Sell these.’ I went through a box of books and said, ‘This one, this one and this one,’” Bonczyk said.
Local stores build relationships, even with people who aren’t regulars, he said.
“I know their life story by the time they leave,” Bonczyk said. “We’re almost therapy for a lot of people. People are starving for that connection. Our goal is to be welcoming to whomever you are, whatever you’re bringing in.”
Nevertheless, Lift Bridge has struggled because of the loss of local school-district book contracts, he said, and the owners are hoping this holiday shopping season will be strong enough to remain in business.
The Christmas season indeed can be enough to ensure a business’ success. Kauffman said Eastview gets about 30 percent of its revenue between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31, a period that represents less than 17 percent of the calendar.
“It’s the biggest season of the year. It’s the make-or-break season,” said Jean Westcott, owner of The Artful Gardener on Mt. Hope Avenue. “If I don’t have a good holiday season, I go into the new year in the red.”
Westcott said she starts ordering from artists in August the one-of-a-kind goods she’ll sell in November and December. Besides hand-crafted gifts, including pottery, jewelry and candles, she sells gardening accents and provides garden design services.
“There’s always going to be people who just want to sit behind their computer and order for ease. I make no attempts to compete with that,” Westcott said. “I try to deliver an experience destination … I just make sure what I have isn’t something people can look at and then price compare online.”
The experience includes a garden walk during the warmer months, and in the store the sound of a flowing fountain, a Pandora music selection, and the scent of burning candles.
“I pay attention to the details of packaging, making it really pretty,” she said. “Hopefully when people see this bag that says The Artful Gardener, they’ll get excited about what’s inside.”
Both Westcott and Bonczyk said they are concerned about the shopping season being a shorter one this year.
“Based on past numbers, I think it really affects the bottom line when it’s a shorter season,” Westcott said. “Last year was the longest holiday season I have experienced and my numbers were the best in the 10 years I’ve been here.”
Kauffman, on the other hand, believes the season just telescopes to meet the amount of time people have.
“History has shown that when you have the shorter season, it really doesn‘t have any impact on the whole. It gets a little more condensed,” Kauffman said.
Using economic conditions and historical patterns, the National Retail Federation is predicting consumers will increase their spending this year by 3.8 to 4.2 percent. But weather patterns can have a big impact, warns AccuWeather, which adds weather into the predictive mix. AccuWeather recently downgraded its shopping increase prediction from 3.8 percent to 3.6 percent. An unusually warm October followed by an unusually cold November has already disrupted late-in-the-year shopping, particularly for coats and other cold-weather gear, the weather company asserted.
“Our estimate of 3.6 percent still reflects a healthy growth – it is above the average of the past four years,” said AccuWeather Founder and CEO Joel N. Myers. The previous years saw annual boosts of 3.4 percent.
Westcott is just hoping there won’t be too much snow. A big storm can shut down access to her shop for a couple of days, she said.
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