Carolyn Edwards is surrounded by dozens of stores on a daily basis, so she tends to do her holiday shopping late in December.
But this year, she purchased two Christmas gifts in mid-October and joined the growing ranks of consumers on an early quest to find the perfect gift for everyone on their list.
“It’s not something I normally do, but sales inspired me to start shopping early,” said the general manager of Lee Premium Outlets.
Tempting gift items also spurred Nicole Sweeney to start shopping well in advance of Christmas, and by Halloween she had a pile of holiday gifts sitting on her desk.
“I don’t wait until Black Friday to shop, but I have never done it this early before,” said the marketing manager at Eastfield Mall in Springfield, noting that purchasing things over a period of several months helps to mitigate the sticker shock that many people face at Christmas.
National surveys show that two in 10 shoppers began their annual quest for the perfect present in early October, and big-box stores put Halloween and Christmas decorations and merchandise on display at about the same time.
“Black Friday preview sales were started early to get people’s appetites going for the holiday spending that leads up to the day after Thanksgiving [Black Friday]. But that day is not like it used to be,” Sweeney said.
Indeed, retailers have already begun to cash in on the final quarter of the year, and the forecast for the season is green. The International Council of Shopping Centers has predicted a 3.5% increase in holiday shopping at brick-and-mortar stores, compared to the 2.2% gain last year; the National Retail Foundation (NRF) expects retail sales in November and December (excluding autos, gas, and restaurants) to increase a solid 3.6% to $655.8 billion; and Deloitte predicts holiday spending to increase between 3.6% and 4% from November through January, topping $1 trillion.
Although online shopping is on the rise and cuts into the pockets of mom-and-pop operations that don’t have websites with free shipping, PwC’s 2016 Retail and Consumer Holiday Outlook survey notes that almost 75% of consumers plan to shop locally, 56% will seek independent retailers, and consumers with annual household incomes less than $50,000 will increase their spending more than consumers overall.
In addition, more people will have cash to spend because retailers have hired, or are planning to hire, between 640,000 and 690,000 seasonal workers, in line with last year’s 675,300 holiday positions.
Gifts are expected to run the gamut from toys to clothing, and high-tech items such as tablets, phones, and gaming devices are expected to be popular, but many people will choose their own presents after the holidays, because gift cards are expected to make up 32% of purchases.
“The stores had their holiday décor in place by the end of October, and the day after Halloween, we went into the holiday season full force,” Edwards said, echoing other retail spokespeople who said Christmas music began playing Nov. 1 and the sound of cash registers humming added to the spirit of the shopping season.
Lisa Wray says the unofficial kickoff for the holiday season at Holyoke Mall was Veterans Day weekend.
“Santa arrived Nov. 12 in a fire truck escorted by the Holyoke Fire Department, and we were ready for the people here to do their holiday shopping,” said the marketing director for Holyoke and Hampshire malls.
She expects sales to be in line with the NRF’s predictions, but expects foot traffic to get a boost, because Holyoke Mall has added eight new stores in the last seven months.
They include Zales Jewelers, a cell-phone accessory and repair shop called Shatter and Case, a women’s plus-size clothing store called Torrid, a newly remodeled Bath & Body Works and White Barn Candle, a Touch of Beauty Nails & Spa, Sprint, CilantroMex restaurant, and Billy Beez, an indoor play park with a jungle theme featuring fun that ranges from bouncing to jumping, sliding, climbing, and more.
Although people will not be camping out on Black Friday like they did years ago, Wray said, it’s still a significant day at Holyoke Mall; many large retailers will open their doors at 12:01 a.m. and people will be lined up to take advantage of promotions.
“Stores like Target, Sears, and Best Buy will all have doorbuster sales that are still a big draw,” said Wray, adding that Holyoke and Hampshire malls will open at 7 a.m.
All of this year’s holiday carts and kiosks at Eastfield Mall were in place Nov. 1, but Black Friday is not as big as it used to be, Sweeney told BusinessWest, adding that Eastfield also has new stores and venues, including a Bounce! Indoor Inflatable Park that opened earlier this fall and is already attracting families.
“My instinct is that places that offer experiences will have an edge this year, because that allows people to wrap in something festive with their shopping,” she said, explaining that parents can combine a trip to Bounce! and shopping in one visit; people can shop, then listen to live music at Donovan’s Pub or take in a movie before and after making purchases.
“Foot traffic is important because we have a lot of mom-and-pop stores. It’s getting easier and faster to shop online, so it’s become very competitive, but one-day preview sales generate a lot of excitement because they offer really good deals in advance of Black Friday,” Sweeney noted, explaining that special promotions will continue throughout the season to accommodate those who shop early, late, and anytime in between.
Other new ventures at Eastfield Mall include V-Stream Dreams, a store that sells an alternative to a TV cable box that allows people to get a multitude of channels with minimal or no lag time; and Gifted Tones Paint and Music Lounge, an art store where people can learn to paint alone or with friends.
Lee Premium Outlets also has new stores, including Kay Jewelers, Guess, a Toys R Us Express, and 10,000 Villages, which will be open only during the holiday season.
“Outlet centers are driven by promotions, and the stores here are offering really good sales. They are difficult to pass up, and folks are already taking advantage of them; they aren’t waiting for the snow to fly or for the week of Thanksgiving to get started on their shopping,” Edwards said, noting that handbags and accessories are always popular, and Michael Kors and Coach are good places to find these gifts.
She added that sales will be heavily promoted, and the right price point will inspire people to make purchases, which often include gifts for themselves.
The fourth quarter of the year is a critical time for retailers, an obvious point that still needs to be stressed.
“The holiday season is so important to them that they can’t let a day go to waste,” Sweeney said.
Holyoke Mall expects to meet expectations forecast by the NRF and other retail groups, and the forecast is equally bright at Lee Premium Outlets.
“All of the early indicators this year are that we will meet or exceed last year’s sales. The numbers should come in for us,” Thomas said.
Which will indeed bring joy to local retailers who hope the sound of cash registers processing sales will continue to ring in a very merry Christmas.