2013 May Be the First Healthy Holiday Sales Season Since Before the RecessionWalking into Kiddly Winks, a popular children’s toy store in Longmeadow, runs a close second to visiting the ‘real’ Santa’s Toyland at the North Pole.
Once in the store, customers are greeted by the cheery owner, Joy Leavitt, who easily takes on the role of a much younger Mrs. Claus with her warm smile and genuinely welcoming character. These qualities, combined with a spot-on toy selection, have made for a very successful business for the past 28 years, and allowed her to open a second store in Canton, Conn. in 2004.
Meeting the Kiddly Winks owner close to the holiday season is only heightened by her frequent use of the word ‘magical,’ which she uses to describe everything from the thousands of customers who have supported her two businesses to the growing popularity of the annual American Express Small Business Saturday — the day after Black Friday — to the nonprofit organization she started this year called Living Local (more on this later).
However, magic is exactly what retailers may need in this year’s sales season — defined by retail sales organizations, like the Retailers Assoc. of Massachusetts, as running from Black Friday to Christmas Eve — because there are six fewer shopping days than last year, including one less vital weekend for shopping, due to Thanksgiving being so late this year. Despite the loss of days, the Retailers Assoc. still predicts a 3.5% gain in sales ($15 billion) over last year, which is a shade less than the National Retail Federation’s projections for this year of 3.9%, which equates to $602.1 billion in total sales. It’s a progression that economists are calling ‘cautionary, slow growth’.
In the Western Mass. region, the independent retailers that BusinessWest spoke with seem to be relatively unconcerned about the shopping-week loss because the past year has shown steady growth, and for the first time since the Great Recession, they are viewing this sales season with anticipation, not trepidation.
“This year has been very, very good, and I do think it’s going to be an active holiday season,” said Dave DiRico of Dave DiRico’s Golf and Racquet in West Springfield. “The economy seems to be getting better, and people seem to be out shopping more.”
DiRico, a former club pro who purchased the well-known Fran Johnson’s Golf & Tennis from owner Cindy Johnson in March 2012 and reopened under his own name the following month, is looking forward to his second successful holiday season as a retailer, based on the success of last holiday season and his growth this year.
And while one might think that Kate Vishnyakov of Kate Gray Boutique should be nervous about this upcoming season since relocating her shop from East Longmeadow to Longmeadow this past October, she’s actually not. As she explained to BusinessWest, she launched her business six years ago at the beginning of the recession but is still going strong.
“The key is to adjust with the times,” Vishnyakov stated. “It got to the point where I didn’t have to depend on what was happening in Washington, or politics, or the economy; I built something that could support and sustain us.”
Her clientele has already welcomed her into town because, with a large percentage of customers coming from Longmeadow, Vishnyakov’s move has made it all that much easier to shop locally, which is vital to her existence. In fact, her sales in October, even being closed for 10 days for the move, were stronger than the same month last year.
Weather, economics, and tragedies can all affect the holiday shopping season, said Diane Merrick, owner, with her sister, Ann Marie Moloney, of It’s All About Me, a women’s boutique in Hampden. But preparing in spite of challenges is a risk that is necessary because the sales of the past holiday seasons reflect what the inventory should be for the present.
“We can’t control people’s fears,” said Merrick. “All we can do is focus on being positive, listening to what customers say they want to see in the store, and provide those products with excellent personal service.”
While Leavitt uses the word ‘magical,’ Victor Ounduian, president of Lorilil Jewelers in downtown Springfield’s Tower Square, is cautiously optimistic. “There’s definitely more positivity this year, if that’s a word,” he said with a chuckle. (Indeed, the Merriam-Webster dictionary describes positivity as ‘the state of being positive.’)
For this issue’s focus on the upcoming holiday sales season, BusinessWest spoke with local business owners who are taking that positivity to heart, at the same time they acknowledge the unscientific nature of making holiday shopping predictions.
During the year, Leavitt sees a lot of young women enter her store to show off their babies.
“And they were my customers when they were little girls,” Leavitt said, smiling. “That’s the beauty of what a legacy business is all about.”
Leavitt is passionate about local businesses, many of which are run by the second, third, or fourth generation, and the reason that she created Living Local (www.living-local.net), a nonprofit organization of local independent business owners in Western Mass. and Northern Conn.
“Shop local has become a real trend in the U.S., and I looked around at our lovely communities, and we didn’t have one,” said Leavitt, referring to an organization that would promote such a philosophy. She worked with local media, and the first meeting brought more than 35 independent business owners just to hear what Leavitt had to say.
“The first story that I told was that, for every $100 that a customer spends in an independently owned store, whatever type it is, $69 of that stays in the community, through taxes, payroll, and other expenditures,” she told BusinessWest, adding that, for national chains, only $43 stays in the community, and worse yet, Internet shopping offers nothing for the local community. “But the real story is to educate the public that if they just shift they way they shop, even 10% of their shopping to shopping locally, they will positively impact local communities and our local tax base.”
After that April 2013 meeting, 20 local businesses signed up and paid the $100 fee to join that night. Now, 55 members of all sizes and counting — from Big Y to Merrick’s It’s All About You — can benefit from the group’s PR and in turn help educate the public about the importance of buying locally, Leavitt said.
The response has been magical (there’s that word again), she said; a recent week-long promotional event offering a $5 tote bag filled with members’ discount coupons sold out of the 500 bags in only six days, and a portion of those proceeds went to the Food Bank of Western Mass.
Another source of help for DiRico, Leavitt, and their fellow small-business owners is Small Business Saturday, which was launched in 2010 by American Express to promote its small-business customers and brand a special shopping day that could seize the momentum of Black Friday. The day allows card holders a percentage discount for all charges at participating local stores, and last year, Leavitt saw a 30% increase in American Express sales for that day.
“American Express really did that to grow their own company, but what they also did was to create something amazing and magical for small local business owners,” said Leavitt. “But a lot of people don’t even know that American Express started it or offers a discount; they just like to help out and shop locally on that special day.”
Regardless of why the day was created, American Express advertising alone is making it catch on nationally, and Leavitt said she and all the other local business owners are just happy that some light can shine on them, just as the holiday season is getting in to full swing.
With no grandiose expectations, Merrick, a young widow with two small boys, took a risk and purchased her small boutique in 2004, offering eclectic yet affordable gifts, jewelry, women’s clothing, and accessories of all kinds. The venture took off, and she soon expanded to a 2,300-square-foot location and, in late 2010, opened a second location in Greenwich, Conn.
For Merrick, the 25% or more of annual sales in the month of December alone are worth all the shopping and researching unique vendors throughout the year.
One risk, she said, is purchasing large volumes of items that will theoretically appeal to a wide variety of customers. Miscalculations can leave the business owner with thousands of dollars of stock that sits, she noted, adding that such gambles should be taken only after considerable due diligence.
Lewis White, owner of A.O. White in East Longmeadow, a 4,200-square-foot men’s and women’s fine clothing and specialty shop since the 1940s, has been through three major recessions and has spent decades trying to figure out such challenging holiday inventory questions.
He credits his success to his buying standards, opting for fine-quality fabrics, styles, and brands that aren’t found at national chain retailers. And like Vishnyakov and Merrick, he relies on his customers to tell him what they like so his inventory can always remain fresh and unique. During the holiday season, White and his staff are monitoring stock daily and ordering by phone or online to keep up.
“We’re always projecting for increases; you can’t have too much or too little,” he explained. “And that’s the part of the business where you have to use your judgment.”
Having endured the economic downturns of the early ’90s, post-9/11, and more recently the Great Recession, Ounduian’s business has bounced back many times.
“Any non-essential item is what goes first — it happens to everyone,” said Ounduian, referring to how consumers change their habits during downturns. “But with this last recession, it didn’t bounce back as fast.”
But with the holidays approaching, Ounduian is using his judgment and banking on that positivity to sell his increased holiday inventory of branded names like David Yurman, Rolex, Mikimoto pearls, and Roberto Coin jewelry, which tend to be top sellers each holiday season.
Soon, he said, the male shoppers will start their shopping around the 12 days before Christmas, and especially the last two days before Christmas, which he expects will keep his store hopping.
“I think we’re going to have a busy season,” Ounduian added. “It’s just a gut feeling — but a good gut feeling.”
Elizabeth Taras can be reached at [email protected]