By KATHRYN FLAGG
ADDISON COUNTY — After bracing for a dismal holiday shopping season this year, many local retailers were pleasantly surprised to see sales hold steady and in some cases increase slightly over last December’s figures.
Shopkeepers credited that bright spot of news to the “shop local” movement, community support, and an uptick in “practical” consumer spending.
The news bucks national trends of slumping sales at many large retail companies. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Macy’s Inc. and Gap Inc. all announced last week that they were revising earnings forecasts after consumers cut back on holiday spending and steep in-store discounts squeezed profit margins. Sears Holdings Corp., the largest U.S. department store company, saw sales fall 7.3 percent in December.
Also last week, the International Council of Shopping Centers and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. reported that half of consumers spent less during the 2008 holiday season than they did in 2007.
But Executive Director of the Bristol Downtown Community Partnership (BDCP) Carol Wells said that she hopes Vermont won’t “get slammed as much as the rest of the country” and can avoid the “peaks and valleys” of the current recession. Based on Christmas spending, she said, local retailers’ spirits are high.
“People are being cautious but I haven’t heard too much gloom and doom,” Well said.
‘SHOP LOCAL’ CATCHES ON
Among the most prevalent trends noticed this Christmas by shopkeepers was consumers’ renewed interest in keeping their spending dollars within their communities.
Proponents of shopping locally argue that dollars spent in locally owned businesses have three times the impact on a community than dollars spent at national chains.
That interest in shopping locally was certainly evident at Bonita Bedard’s Vermont Honey Lights candle shop in Bristol.
Bedard’s shop ended the year with December sales on par, in terms of dollars, with last year’s revenues. She attributed that success to support from the local community, and a growing awareness among shoppers of the benefits of shopping locally. She did hear from many customers, she said, who were making a conscious effort to do just that.
“I think raising people’s awareness is always a good thing,” Bedard said.
Linda Cook, the owner of Linda’s Apparel in Vergennes, said that she heard a similar sentiment from many customers. Despite a belt-tightening economy, she said, these shoppers indicated a desire to bolster their neighborhood shops.
“A lot of our regular customers were saying that they were cutting back, but they were trying to shop local,” she said.
When asked about her store’s December sales, Cook said that her numbers were up slightly (despite a general slow down in sales since July).
“I did a little better than expected,” Cook said.
That same sentiment — of exceeding expectations — popped up among other local retailers.
Becky Dayton, owner of the Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury, said her sales were lower this December than they were in 2007 — but that the numbers weren’t as bad as she had feared.
“We held our own,” said Dayton, who, like Cook and Bedard, said she also got the sense from many of her customers that they were trying to shop locally this year.
In another bright spot, the sale of Middlebury Money went up 37 percent this year, to $28,000, according to Executive Director of the Better Middlebury Partnership Gail Freidlin.
The sale of these universal gift certificates, redeemable at 75 local stores, was a strong statement from shoppers that not only did they want to shop locally, but they wanted to pass on the message of shopping locally to gift certificate recipients.
Freidlin also said that higher sales of Middlebury Money means that more money will show up at area stores in the coming months, hopefully easing the transition into 2009 for many businesses.
‘PRACTICAL’ PAYS OFF
Retailers also noticed a trend toward buying what many dubbed “practical” gifts.
At the Agway Farm and Garden Store in Middlebury, Assistant Business Manager Jennifer Jacobs said that sales were up almost 10 percent from last year’s December sales figures.
She credited that in part to the popularity of items like Carhartt clothing. (Agway is the largest Carhartt vendor in the county.)
“Practical items — I think that’s what a lot of people were going for this year,” Jacobs said. Customers were still spending, particularly on clothing and, curiously, on items for their pets.
Clothing wasn’t flying off the shelves at Linda’s Apparel — but practicality kicked in as shoppers opted for smaller gifts and “basics” over what Cook termed the “fashion items.”
At Honey Lights, Bedard saw a similar preference for functional presents among many customers. She said that her customers tended to pass over decorative candles and “really wanted to give things that people were going to use.”
“I don’t blame them,” she said.
Retailers were reluctant to make many predictions about spending in 2009, though many are digging for innovative ways to combat the national economic slowdown. The members of the BDCP — which includes 21 shops, seven restaurants and delis, and 35 professional offices or service-related businesses in the core Bristol downtown area — are pooling advertising dollars and organizing community events in the downtown district.
Wells said that the BDCP also hopes to help businesses increase their Web presence in 2009 by getting more information and hours online.
At the Vermont Book Shop, Dayton said that she hopes to continue to enhance that “shop local” message that she thinks brought in customers during the Christmas season.
Many individual shopkeepers expressed a sense of optimism in the wake of the holiday shopping season.
Jacobs at AgWay said that she had been worried heading into December, given national news reports about projected holiday spending, but that caution should be tempered with an optimistic outlook.
“Being optimistic is an important thing,” Jacobs said. “It can be a self-fulfilling prophecy if you’re a naysayer.”