Retailers see quick start to the holidays

ADDISON COUNTY — Over the past few years, Addison County retailers have been battered by a nationwide recession, stiff competition from the Internet, stressed household budgets and, this year, the crippling effects of Tropical Storm Irene.
But many local shop owners are cautiously optimistic about the holiday shopping season that they say kicked off with a bang this past weekend.
“It turned out we probably had our best Thanksgiving weekend ever in 13 years,” said Steve Atocha, owner of the outdoor gear and guide shop the Middlebury Mountaineer. “We must’ve been up 15-20 percent (from last year).”
Atocha wasn’t alone. Many other Addison County stores — like Vermont Honey Lights, the Bristol beeswax candle manufacturer — also enjoyed renewed consumer confidence.
“Friday, Saturday and Sunday we were up above 40 percent from last year … but we weren’t as good as 2009,” said Shawna Sherwin, co-owner of Vermont Honey Lights. She added, “It could be one sale that skews your whole month.”
Nancie Dunn, owner of the Main Street gift shop Sweet Cecily in Middlebury, has been in business for almost 25 years. In spite of the harsher economic climate, she’s pleased with this year’s business.
“It’s as good a year as we’ve ever had … Thanksgiving weekend was great,” she said.
And when business is lucrative for one small-town establishment, it’s generally good for others too, said Dunn.
“In a small town, it’s unlikely that one store is doing off-the-charts business and other stores are not,” she said. “I think (business in) Middlebury seems pretty healthy.”
The strong local sales over the weekend after Thanksgiving follow a national trend. Preliminary estimates from the National Retail Federation, which bills itself as the world’s largest retail trade association, show that retailers nationwide posted record Thanksgiving-weekend sales of $52.4 billion. Reputable consumer confidence indexes, like that of the Conference Board, also showed a promising economic outlook heading into the holiday season.
Fourth-quarter sales are key for many county businesses.
“Oh my god, this is make it or break it,” said Sherwin. “We are a fourth-quarter business. Our December is everything. It’s kind of scary how important it is … Sales in October, November and December account for about 60 percent of our total business. It’s that magic quarter.”
For Tim Hodson, owner of the Vergennes outdoor apparel shop Addison Outfitters, the fiscal importance of the holiday season leads to a nail-biting crunch at the end of every year, as his business doesn’t usually turn a profit until just before December is over.
“The holidays are huge,” he said. “November and December probably account for a good half of our business year. We need a good holiday season to wrap up … With businesses like mine, we’re really running in the red until the end of the year, so it’s important to finish up strong.”
The weather also heavily influences sales of outdoor goods. 
“If there’s any factor that could stall holiday shopping, it’s the weather,” said Hodson. “We’ve certainly seen a lot of factors (that influence sales), the weather being the most prevalent … But it seems like things have kicked off and we’re hoping for a good holiday season.”
After an early-morning snowfall last Wednesday, Middlebury’s Skihaus boasted a 50 percent sales increase from last year’s Thanksgiving eve, said co-owner Anna Boisvert.
Over the past few years, county retailers have noticed both consumers and suppliers practicing greater moderation when it comes to buying and selling goods.
Manufacturers that once produced a surplus of goods are scaling back production, said Middlebury Mountaineer’s Atocha.
“There’s no longer this surplus of equipment that gets dumped into (surplus stores),” he said, weighing the positives and negatives of this new phenomenon. “But it also means we don’t have the ability to order things ASAP.”
Consumers are scaling back, too, explained Hodson.
“We’re still seeing people buying useful items like a good pair of socks or a good jacket they know they’re going to get a lot out of. So those are still signs that people are being fiscally conservative and trying to shop smart,” he said. “People are holding back, but they’re also thinking more about local businesses and making an effort to support us.”
Some local businesses got a boost from a major credit card company and some Internet companies. American Express, for the second year in a row, launched a campaign called Small Business Saturday, which provided incentives for customers to shop locally. As part of this year’s campaign, Internet giants Google, Facebook and Twitter teamed up to help small businesses attract customers for the Saturday after Thanksgiving by providing small businesses with free advertisements and other web tools.
Local businesses, like Vermont Honey Lights, that don’t even accept American Express credit cards touted the benefits of this campaign.
“I really attribute much of the (sales increase) to the American Express thing,” said Sherwin. “A lot of people said it was self-serving, but it put the idea of buying local into people’s minds.”
Many other local business owners also said the campaign helped draw in customers.
“I think (this campaign) really brought it to the forefront that if you want your town to survive, you have to support it,” said Dunn. “I think it raises a consciousness about supporting small, local businesses.”
But local business owners did not give the American Express campaign all the credit. Ultimately, they attributed the recent surge in local business to Addison County’s sense of community.
“This is a pretty special community,” said Atocha. “I feel pretty fortunate that we live in a community where people value shopping locally.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].

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