Retailers in Frederick County are cautiously optimistic that shoppers will be opening their wallets this holiday season, with statewide sales projected to increase between 2.5 to 3 percent over last year, according to the Maryland Retailers Association.
The holiday shopping season — which runs from the day after Thanksgiving until Jan. 1 — is a crucial time for most businesses, and a critical period for good sales and hefty profits.
For many it’s make-it-or-break-it time and can have a lasting impact on a small business.
“It’s detrimental,” said Devin Gaither, sales associate with Molly’s Meanderings, a woman’s clothing and gift shop on North Market Street in downtown Frederick. “This is how the owner keeps the store open. She makes her living by Christmas sales.”
Patrick Donoho, president of the statewide Maryland Retailers Association, said in a news release that the economy is still shaky and consumer confidence is fragile, but the retail forecast is slightly higher this year.
Maryland‘s sales tax, which jumped from 5 percent to 6 percent in 2008, is also expected to bring in added revenue for state coffers.
“Retailers are cautiously optimistic that the economy continues to grow, and consumers will shop their local retailers this holiday season,” Donoho said.
The National Retail Federation, a national trade association, predicts that sales in November and December will increase 4.1 percent to $586.1 billion over last year. About 48 percent of annual sales for retailers occur during those two months, the federation said in a report.
Heather Ernst, marketing director with the Francis Scott Key Mall in Frederick, said despite financial uncertainties, she expects shoppers to hit the mall this holiday season.
“It’s what every retailer is hoping for,” Ernst said. “Things are still kind of quiet, but we’re expecting Black Friday to do very well.”
To lure customers, the mall will open at midnight on Black Friday — the day after Thanksgiving and the traditional start of the holiday shopping season when retailers hope to make enough sales to be in the “black” — although not all of the 70 or so stores will be open, she said.
Looking to cash in early on holiday sales, retailers such as Sears, Toys ‘R’ Us, Target and Wal-Mart are opening at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving, or what some are now calling “Black Thursday.” Macy’s, Best Buy and Kohl’s are opening at midnight.
Ernst said the mall is concerned that JC Penney — one of the mall’s anchor stores — will struggle this holiday season.
On Friday, the chain reported third-quarter losses, with revenue plunging 26 percent. In February, the company changed its pricing, ditching coupons and special sales. But customers have rejected the new pricing, and revenue has been down.
JC Penney officials did not return phone calls, but Ernst said they are working with the store to bring in customers.
“Of course, we’re concerned,” she said. “We want every site to do well. So I will do what I can to market the store.”
The city of Frederick is also gearing up for Black Friday’s annual Frosty Friday.
For the past eight years, the Downtown Frederick Partnership has held its annual Frosty Friday the day after Thanksgiving, with hundreds of people trading in the lure of chain stores and malls for shopping in downtown’s unique gift shops.
“It’s important,” said Jenn Goodwin, who works at Flights of Fancy, a gift shop in downtown Frederick’s Everedy Square. “It’s definitely the busiest time of the year. Obviously, we’ve had some bit of the economic turndown, but we’ve still done well. Black Friday has usually been pretty good for us throughout the day, and Frosty Friday to a degree has had some impact on that. We always try to have something new and give people a shopping experience. Christmas has always been great to us.”
Richard Griffin, director of city economic development, is encouraging consumers to shop locally this holiday season.
“Downtown is obviously a special place, and we do encourage shopping downtown,” Griffin said. “Downtown has a unique appeal and [retailers] depend on local citizens to do their shopping here and support the stores.”
Griffin said shopping in a speciality store is a better experience than being alone and shopping online.
“You actually go into a store and meet the business owner,” he said. “You develop a relationship between the business owner and the shopper. They get to know your name. There is so much more than what you will get online.”
Georgie Van Brocklin of Frederick said she would rather shop downtown than at the mall. She already plans to purchase some toys for her 2-year-old granddaughter at downtown’s Dancing Bear Toys and Gifts on North Market Street.
“It’s really quaint here,” said Brocklin, who spent Monday shopping downtown. “The shopping is so much better. The shops make is so much better with the decorations for Christmas.”
Rhoda Chilcoat of Upper Marlboro also said she loves coming to the downtown area to shop.
“They have individual items that are not mass produced,” said Chilcoat, who spent Monday shopping along North Market Street. “The stuff is so unique. I’m more interested in helping out the local owners of the shops. I will pay more to help sustain a community.”
There are currently 3,500 businesses in the city, Griffin said. Of that number, 600 are downtown, and 200 of those are retail and restaurants.
Small Business Saturday, a national event that encourages people to shop at small businesses, is set for the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Started by American Express in 2010, an estimated 103 million Americans participated last year, according to American Express.
Better jobless news
Griffin said the county’s low unemployment rate, compared with the national rate, is good news for retailers.
“We’re very fortunate the unemployment rate is below the state and significantly below national levels,” he said. “That is good news for retailers. If [shoppers] are working, they’re shopping. Frederick has every reason to expect a good year.”
The unemployment rate in Frederick County is 5.4 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor and Statistics. Statewide the unemployment rate is 6.9 percent, and nationally the rate is higher at 7.9 percent.
But these numbers could change, since retailers nationally are expected to hire between 585,000 to 625,000 temporary workers this holiday season, according to the National Retail Federation.
Tom England, owner of Dancing Bear Toys and Gifts, said he expects another good year.
“We do a phenomenal business year-after-year,” England said. “Even during the tough economic times we did a phenomenal business because people don’t like to skimp on children. They want to make sure [children] don’t do without.”
England credits his good fortune during the last 13 years to their unique toys that are unlike those sold at big-box stores.
“We don’t carry the mass market stuff,” he said. “You can’t go into the Walmart and get what we have. We spend a lot of time finding things that the mass market does not have.”
England said he is looking forward to Frosty Friday.
“It’s such a relaxed atmosphere downtown,” he said. “It’s so enjoyable. I love it.”