Happy holidays for retailers in the region

When the 2009 holiday season was approaching, retailer Carol Perry didn't stock up her usual popular mix of high-end furniture at Silk Road Imports in Olde Mistick Village.

Instead, she loaded up on her hottest eclectic inventory, so long as the price ranged between $20 and $60. That meant selling items like Buddha carvings and Samurai swords.

And sell, she did. In fact, her holiday sales were up 10 percent over sales in 2008.

"You might think that's a lot, except last year was horrible," Perry said. "The economy is just not well."

That reality was reflected in December's statistics from the U.S. Department of Commerce, which showed retail sales down three tenths of a percent.

The decline contrasts with the National Retail Federation's figures, which reflect a slight gain of 1.1 percent for the entire November and December shopping season.

Economists and southeastern Connecticut retailers interpret the contradictory signals as an improvement, though a decidedly tentative one.

"Consumer spending is growing very weakly, but the key thing is that it's growing," said Scott Hoyt, senior director of consumer economics at Moody's Economy.com.

Southeastern Connecticut shops and some of the major department store retailers reported healthy holiday season increases, leading one store owner to suggest that the economy here is more resilient than it is in other parts of the country.

"Especially around this area, I think the economy is better than other areas of the country, it's just a matter of people believing it," said Suzanne Lane, the owner of the Gray Goose Cookery, Gray Goose II and Elizabeth & Harriet, in Olde Mistick Village.

"There's a certain amount of negative talk but most of it is psychological. People's investments are recovering so I think there's more confidence."

But Hoyt cautioned that consumer confidence remains weak, and tepid sales can be expected as the year continues.

Retailers know this, anticipated it in 2009 and will continue to plan for the conservative shopper, owners said.

Locally, K&M Sports owner Sam Romanella said his store at the Crystal Mall in Waterford seemed to cater to consumers choosing to pay with cash instead of credit and focusing on cheaper gifts. For his store, that meant selling a lot of $6.99 key lanyards or $9.99 beer steins.

"As an owner you had to go out and buy things that you knew were under that $30 window so that you could get the customers to purchase," said Romanella. "This year, I felt most people bought items that were useful, not so much knick knacks."

Nationally, Kohl's sales increased 4.7 percent year over year for the five weeks ending Jan. 2, while Toys R Us reported a 4.6-percent increase domestically and 1 percent improvement internationally for the same period. The region hosts a Kohl's store in Groton and a Toys R us in Waterford.

However, Sears reported a decline nationally of 4.3 percent. The Crystal Mall hosts a Sears store.

The NRF found apparel sold particularly well this past season, increasing 7 percent for December while dipping 0.6 percent for November. Sporting goods, hobby, book and music stores also performed well, , the NRF said.

"With an eye on managing inventory and maintaining lower price points, retailers did a tremendous job of planning for the holiday season," said NRF Chief Economist Rosalind Wells.

Or, as Perry put it: "My big joke is, I'd rather sell it than dust it. I'm not running a museum. We just have to brave through it. I don't think it's a lack of customers, I think it's a lack of disposable income."

p.daddona@theday.com

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