December Means Business

Retailers Scramble for a Piece of the Holiday Shopping Pie

By April Bartel | Posted on 12.01.15 – Biz Ink, Feature, People & Places

Cynically, it’s been called another kind of Christmas gift: the cluster of religious and cultural holidays near the end of the calendar year that creates a collision of feasting, festivities and shopping, and an economic make-or-break time for many retailers.

Sure, perfectly dependable, consistent income is kind of the golden ring in most business categories.

But more likely, company leaders have to hug the rudder while navigating a constant ebb and flow of seasonal demand and overarching economic influences. December is different. There are no guarantees, but, if a retail business can’t make it in December, grab the life jackets.

Ah, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Despite backlash against frenzied consumerism, Christmas décor routinely sparkles in October, alongside mounds of Halloween candy, as ready retailers try to stretch the seasonal rush. Known as “the Christmas creep,” Bronto Software’s Holiday Planning Report notes that “53 percent of retailers launch holiday marketing campaigns in September or earlier, but more than half of all shoppers surveyed (52 percent) said they don’t plan to make their first purchase until October or November.”

Consumers are conditioned to wait for sales, but, with stakes so high, retailers start thinking about the next holiday season a year, or more, in advance. Hesitating could mean the difference between having sufficient, well-trained staff and ample stock to meet demand or going bust. This may be the season for all the cheer and giving, but not for patience. According to Customer Feedback Insights Group, 79 percent of customers will turn to other brands and options when first choice items are unavailable. Consumers can whip out a cell phone to check out the competition while standing in front of a store’s empty shelving. Lost sales now could mean lost customers, for good.

When Christina Christopher opened Country Shabby Chic, now Shabby Chic Creative Studios & Boutique, in Downtown Frederick in April 2014, she brought lessons learned from six years with Nordstrom’s personal stylist program. “You can’t just hope and pray for sales,” especially as a small business owner competing with national retailers and expanding online shopping options. “You have to learn who your customers are, follow-up with them, and spoil and delight them so they want to come back. … If they choose me, I’m going to make sure they become my customers for life by making shopping easier.” She’ll offer selection assistance, wrapping, special orders and other personalized services. With the right approach, she expects sales volume to triple this month.

National retailers may have an edge on collecting market data, but local and regional businesses have an ace in the hole. Kara Norman, Executive Director of the Downtown Frederick Partnership, acknowledges online shopping as a function of our increasingly busy lives, but she offers a flip side. “There is also a strong trend for going local. Really thinking about how where you buy things has an impact on your community. The advantage here is that Downtown shops are, by and large, independently owned. Owners are in their shops almost daily and the merchandise reflects their personal style and choices. And you can be in this beautiful environment. That makes shopping here a very special experience.” She adds with a chuckle, “Buying a gift should be as much fun as giving it.”

Frederick business leaders consistently note another edge for the local market: cooperation. Shop owner Lisa Whidden of Whidden Willow on East Patrick Street knows that power first hand. She opened her store, specializing in hand-crafted boots plus Western-style clothing, in March 2013. Her first year was good, but when freak flooding decimated Lisa’s space and stock earlier this year, friends pulled together to help. JoJo’s Restaurant & Tap House served up a fundraiser for Lisa and Vinyl Acres, another business hit by flooding. Community members donated to a GoFundMe account and best bud Christopher provided space in Shabby Chic while repairs were under way. Lisa is positive, “I would have been out of business if I didn’t have this support from the community.” Whidden Willow reopened in November.

Dollars and Cents

And buying local has an impact. Shoppers shifting just $20 a month of their purchases from large chains could put more than $33,000 a year into local businesses, according to an economic calculator provided by RelyLocal, a national grassroots community for connecting local businesses with local customers. “That money supports our civic, social, and cultural infrastructures while fueling new economic growth through local job creation and business investments,” says Caressa Flannery, local territory owner of RelyLocal Frederick.

Economic forecasters and government agencies use consumer spending as an indicator for overall economic health because it reflects issues such as jobs, tax income, consumer confidence and even property values. Frederick County’s 9,000-plus businesses employ 91,000 workers, according to the Office of Economic Development. Most of these companies are small businesses with fewer than 100 workers. The National Retail Federation puts Maryland’s retail establishments at 68,283, supporting a total of 755,679 overall jobs—a $46.4 billion industry. That’s 14 percent of the state’s gross domestic product. Since so much retail income, not to mention sales tax revenue, is weighted to the last month or two of the year, everyone has a stake in how year-end sales ring up.

There is a well-established network of resources and support for local business, including city, county and state economic development offices. The Frederick County Chamber of Commerce is the first chartered Chamber of Commerce in the United States and five towns in the county are recognized as Main Street Maryland communities: Brunswick, Frederick, Middletown, Mount Airy and Thurmont. The Main Street program strengthens economic potential with related support for planning, marketing and promotion, training and education. Even the Tourism Council of Frederick County plays into the mix.

As well it should. Getting people away from computers and engaged with their surroundings is a leap toward getting shopping opportunities on their radar, too. A 2014 study by Tourism Economics showed $380.5 million (more than a million dollars a day) was spent in the county on lodging, recreation, transportation, food/beverage and retail. Charissa Hipp, digital marketing and media relations manager for the Tourism Council, notes that people attending free events, candlelight tours, open houses and museums usually make a day of it, whether their primary agenda includes the Monocacy National Battlefield or the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. “If people are spending a chunk of time here, they are probably going to check out the gift shop, stop for dinner or do some holiday shopping,” Hipp says.

Mark Joannides, owner of The Honeybaked Ham Co. and Café on the Golden Mile says the difference between September and December sales in his establishment is like the difference between a sunny day and three feet of snow. In 2014 Mark and his wife/co-owner, Beth, won the company’s Franchise Rookie of the Year Award and Most Increased Sales, so he must be doing something right. He sees his current path as divine intervention, saying, before buying the franchise, “God worked on me. I wasn’t living my life right. Then he broke me. Then we saw that this place was for sale.” The café transforms during the holidays to accommodate seasonal displays and room for looping lines of customers. Crunch time calls for a full-time employee dedicated to handling the phone.

Other restaurants experience a boost during the holidays, too, as more hungry shoppers and travelers need lunch. More offices need party platters and banquet facilities, and fuller tour busses come to town. And, when festive gatherings include a performance or a movie, nearby eateries vie for before-and-after crowds. As a good neighbor, the Weinberg Center for the Arts sends weekly ticket sales stats to the Downtown Frederick Partnership, so local businesses know how many people are coming and can staff accordingly.  “We know that over 65 percent of the people who come to shows here are going to have a drink or a meal while they are in town. When we have a sold-out show, [restaurants] are going to be slammed,” says John Healey, executive theater manager. Theatergoers can even snag a package deal through the Visitor’s Center. It’s $99 for one night’s lodging at Plamondon Hospitality’s Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott, two orchestra tickets to a Weinberg Center show, and a coupon for dinner at Brewer’s Alley.

Healey says, “We are a nonprofit, but we still have to finish in the black.” Luckily, December is pretty predictable for the Weinberg Center, pending snow. The calendar is filled with community-based shows that have become annual traditions for patrons: A Christmas Carol with the Maryland Ensemble Theatre; the Maryland Regional Ballet’s Nutcracker; and a Messiah Sing Along with the Frederick Chorale. Such groups performing at the 1,100-seat theater can “draw more in a weekend here than would be in their [smaller] space over three to four months,” says Healey.

The Party’s Over

Business leaders can breathe after the holidays, but they can’t totally disengage. Sharon Streb owns Oil & Vinegar at Westview Promenade, a pedestrian-friendly plaza that replicates the feel of in-town shopping. Housed with a mix of local, regional, and national establishments, she’s been through the cycle before. November and December bring a flurry of hostess and office party exchange gift sales at this culinary gift store, where Sharon creates “grab-and-go” packages to help harried customers. “The sales definitely help you get through the rest of the year.” Come January, she looks forward to new customers returning with their gift cards or bringing bottles back to refill. “We’ll do a ‘surprise bag’ sale in January with double the value items inside. People loved it last year.”

Westview’s NUVO Salon & Spa doesn’t see the same wild fluctuation, but does get a bump. “We are excited for the new year,” says co-owner Tami Anderson. Like Oil & Vinegar, gift cards bring in prospects.  “We hired several new technicians, as well, to be able to accommodate the growing clientele.” She hopes her more than 500 new clients become return clients.

Flannery, RelyLocal Frederick’s territory owner and a marketing professional, sends us back to the beginning with a reminder that downtime is for planning. “There’s a lot of competition out there. Stay on top of social media and advertising. Update your website. Send out an email blast. Just let them know that you are here and don’t give up!”