Local businesses upbeat as holiday season winds down

Shoppers make their way through the Crystal Mall in Waterford on Thursday. Many retailers in the region have been encouraged by an uptick in business compared to last year's holiday season.
Buy Photo Sean D. Elliot/The Day Shoppers make their way through the Crystal Mall in Waterford on Thursday. Many retailers in the region have been encouraged by an uptick in business compared to last year's holiday season.

In the digital age, the cash registers don't sing.

It's the shopping bags that tell the story. And the parking lots.

And with three days left in the holiday shopping season, the signs were hopeful Thursday at some of the retail meccas in the region. Despite the general economic malaise, many storeowners said they've been encouraged by the business they've done since "Black Friday," the day after Thanksgiving.

"We're having a terrific season," said Suzanne Lane, who owns The Gray Goose Cookery and two other shops in Olde Mistick Village. "We'll see how the last days go, but it's been very strong."

Owners of one downtown Mystic outlet expressed their gratitude on Facebook:

"Thank you all for making this one of the best holiday seasons we have had since buying the store in 2006," read a Tuesday post on Bank Square Books' site. On Wednesday, another post gushed, "… Thank you all for shopping LOCALLY and supporting Bank Square Books. This is the best, most profitable holiday season we have ever had and will help to carry us through the winter."

Patience Banister, who co-owns the independent bookstore with Annie Philbrick, said customers seemed to be focused on buying local.

People are snapping up "Steve Jobs" and the other bestsellers, she said, but the book that's been really flying off the shelves is "In A Fisherman's Language," by Jim Henry, the former Stonington lobsterman who didn't begin to read and write until he was in his 90s.

"We've sold two, three, four copies to customers at once," Banister said. "We sold 151 in about a month. It's our biggest seller."

Management at Crystal Mall in Waterford said stores in the only indoor shopping complex within an hour's driving radius have been seeing brisk traffic.

"All indications are that we've been doing better than last year," Chris Bastien, director of mall marketing, said Thursday. "If nationally they're saying retail is up 3 to 4 percent over last year, I have no problem believing we're within that. We won't know until later in January when the numbers are in but just look around; a lot of people are carrying bags."

By noon Thursday, the mall's parking lots looked more than half full.

The better than 20 percent of the mall's 125 stores that opened at midnight on Black Friday - four hours before the rest of the stores - "did extremely well" that day, Bastien said. Retailers willing to offer big discounts and otherwise promote aggressively have continued to thrive, he said.

Simon Property Group Inc., the mall's owner, has introduced such new amenities as a "rejuvenation station" featuring cushy seating and flat-screen TVs, entertainment and activities for children.

Sam Romanella, whose K&M All-Star Sports is one of the few non-chain stores in the mall, said his business this holiday season has been about the same as last year's. He said he'd have been sorry if he'd opted not to open at midnight on Black Friday.

"I did most of my business between midnight and 3 a.m.," he said. "If not for that, my day would have been a failure."

Romanella moved his store to Crystal Mall three years ago after 18 years in the Norwichtown Mall. He said he does about a sixth of his annual business during the holiday season.

"Without the holiday business, you don't get the repeat business later in the year," he said. "If customers get good service during the holidays when you're busy, they'll come back."

December's mild weather, including Thursday's downright balmy first day of winter, has contributed to a good retail climate, storeowners said.

"We've had a wonderful month," said Joyce Resnikoff, Olde Mistick Village's owner. "It was the best Luminaria (light festival) we've had in over 30 years. Cars were lined up on the highway. Things like that make it special for the locals."

It hasn't hurt retailers, she reasoned, that no one's been burdened by snow-removal costs.

Lane, the village storeowner, believes the calendar's been a boon to retailers, too, what with Christmas Day falling on Sunday.

"A lot of people are taking (today) off and then Monday's the holiday, so it could be a big weekend," she said.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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