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Upping the Ante

Retailers Cautiously Optimistic About Holiday Shopping Season

Ken Williamson

Ken Williamson believes people are gaining confidence in the economy and are less afraid to spend than they were in the past.

This year’s holiday shopping season holds the promise of being merry and bright for local retailers. And although it’s too early to determine exactly how much people will spend, store owners have made their lists, checked them twice, and are already wrapping gifts purchased by shoppers who want to avoid crowds and be able to choose from a wide selection of sizes, styles, and gift options before things get picked over.

Eastfield Mall Marketing Manager Nicole Sweeney said retailers are catering to what she calls a “creeping” trend in which people begin buying gifts long before the holiday-shopping season officially kicks off on Black Friday.

“People are already shopping. They aren’t waiting until weeks before Christmas to buy gifts. They are stretching out their spending, and national retailers have definitely taken note; they put trim-the-tree and holiday-related items on the shelves before Halloween even arrived,” Sweeney told BusinessWest, adding that popular gifts include perfume sets and newly released video games and music.

Furthermore, many people started their annual shopping spree when the iPhone 6 hit the shelves in September.

Lisa Wray concurred that the season has begun. “Quite a few stores are already decorated for Christmas, and shoppers have been asking about our holiday return policy,” the marketing manager for Holyoke Mall reported during the first week of November.

Although they don’t sell electronics, Williamson’s Clothier in Chicopee also had a fair number of shoppers in September buying gifts and requesting holiday gift wrap. “We get customers who want something special,” owner Ken Williamson said. “People come here to look for items they wouldn’t find elsewhere, and many want to get an early start.”

In fact, a Google consumer study conducted this summer showed that 29% of people planned to start their shopping in July, although most do wait until December.

Wilson’s Department Store in Greenfield is another independent retailer in sync with the growing trend. “We kicked off the holiday season during the last week of October with our ‘Fabulous Harvest Sale,’” said Vice President Pamara Beauregard. “We opened our Trim A Tree Shop, put holiday paper in our gift-wrapping department, and have racks stacked to the ceiling with extra merchandise. We also expanded our hours, and many people are already taking advantage of them.”

However, the majority of shoppers do wait until Black Friday to begin their shopping, and this year Eastfield Mall will open at midnight for the first time in its history.

“Black Friday is always a huge day, and we are approaching it very aggressively. We know customers are out shopping, and we have to open to be competitive,” Sweeney said, adding that the first 250 people to enter the mall will receive free coupons, gift cards, concert tickets, and more. “Black Friday is something people plan for, and groups wait in line together for stores to open.”

Setting Sale

Online shopping has forced retailers to engage in very competitive pricing, and local spokespeople agree that shoppers are waiting for sales, spending judiciously, and, in many cases, purchasing practical items they know will be used.

“Although things aren’t as tight as they were a few years ago, people are still cautious about spending. They remember what it was like when the price of oil and gas was really high. They also know what they want and are being very careful with their money,” Beauregard said. “They’re purchasing gifts that tend to be practical and will help recipients stay warm, such as sweaters, down comforters, or cozy flannel nightgowns. People want to give, but also want to be sure the gifts will be helpful.”

Kate Gourde has taken note of the trend, and the shopkeeper from Cooper’s Gifts and Curtains in Agawam said she’s made some changes in the type of merchandise the store carries, replacing tabletop and decorative items with jewelry, fashion accessories, and clothing. “People want practical gifts that not only have a fashion flair, but will help to keep them warm,” she said, adding that the shop began wrapping holiday gifts in September.

However, Sweeney stressed that sales and competitive pricing are critical, especially at Eastfield Mall.

Nicole Sweeney

Nicole Sweeney says holiday shopping at the Eastfield Mall began in September after the iPhone 6 was released.

“We cater to an urban market, and incomes tend to be lower here than in than some of the surrounding communities, so people are looking for deals, which is another reason why they start shopping so early,” she said. “Money is being spent, but in a much more considered and thoughtful way.”

However, Williamson believes there has been a change in the economic climate and thinks shoppers are less afraid to spend than they were in the past. “I have gotten the feeling for the first time this year that people are finally a little more confident,” he said.

His sentiment is backed up by research. A National Retail Federation survey released last month says the average holiday shopper will spend about 5% more this year, or $804 compared to the $767 spent in 2013, while a report from the International Council of Shopping Centers predicts shoppers will spend 4.1% more than they did last year. Still, other studies forecast only a 2.5% to 3% increase.

Williamson thinks 5% is overly optimistic and said he will be happy if his store does the same amount of business as it did last year. “It exceeded my expectations and was what I was hoping for,” he told BusinessWest. “And although I would gladly settle for a 5% increase, it’s quite a big number.”

Sweeney agreed, and added that many factors play into the equation.

“Last year the outlook was good until the government shut down, which caused a hangover of fear during the holidays,” she said. “Many local shoppers were affected, especially since Westover Air Reserve Base is so close to the mall. And shopping can also be affected by the weather. So if I knew we would end up with a 3% increase in sales, I would be dancing right now.”

Gourde agrees. “We feel 5% is really optimistic, but would love to think it could happen,” she said. “Last year sales were down in December due to a major snowstorm, so many people stayed home and ordered online, which meant the brick-and-mortar stores took a big hit. Just a little mood snow would be fine, but I hope we don’t have any major snowstorms in December again. And the economy is still challenging, so we are hoping we will have a solid year, rather than a stellar year.”

Positive Projections

Holyoke Mall has undergone significant change since last year. Renovations include new tile on every floor, new seating areas and rest rooms, a newly opened Michael Kors store, and a renovation of Victoria’s Secret, which Wray says all adds up to a better shopping environment for guests.

She believes it will bode well for the holiday season, and added that a lot of stores are offering online ordering with in-store pickup, or allowing people to reserve items online and pick them up in the mall. “If they pay for them here, it adds to our sales,” she said, “so we are optimistic we will have a solid gain over last year.”

Beauregard agreed. “We would be really happy if the numbers are even with what we did last year when we exceeded our expectations, and based on what we have seen so far, we don’t see any reason that things shouldn’t be just as good,” she said. “But it doesn’t happen every year, and if we do even better than last year, we will be ecstatic.”

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