All signs indicate that this will be a great holiday season. That’s especially important for us because we sell holiday merchandise, primarily Christmas items.
There’s a sense of happiness with customers. Their spirits are noticeably high this year. We don’t get grumpy customers in our store. You can’t stare at a Santa Claus and walk away frowning. There’s a kind of childlike excitement they get in here — people have the money to spend.
We’re in the historic section of Smithfield, Va., on Main Street in a 5,000-square-foot building that was constructed in 1900. We have the largest selection of glass ornaments and Santa figures in the state. We sell the products of specialty manufacturers that you won’t find at a Target or Wal-Mart. Right now I’ve already sold out of some of the more expensive items that go for $100 and up. When I’m sold out of something before Thanksgiving I wished I’d made a different decision to buy more of those items to sell. It’s a great problem to have.
In my 17 years in business, 2007 was my best year. But then we took our biggest beating in 2009.
Geographically, we’re in a good area for employment. Our town is near a military region, with a large Navy, Air Force and Army presence. They all had jobs. When the nation is at war, they are working. But I think with all of the talk of how bad the economy was, it forced them to evaluate what they were doing and to think: Maybe I shouldn’t be spending crazy money on something I really don’t need.
During the recession, we didn’t so much see a drop off in customers. The main thing I noticed was the dollar value of what people were buying dropped. I have a fair amount of $75 to $300 Santas here. But people were looking for the $35 to $40 ones. I’ve got ornaments $100 each. But the $10 to $15 ornaments were the ones being picked up. The drop in overall sales forced us to trim our six-member staff to five.
In 2010, we didn’t buy as much expensive stuff. The good news was that, though the average ticket went down, the customer count went up. We were within a few hundred dollars of our best year ever. And we were able to increase our staff back to six.
January is when I do my buying — by the end of the month I usually have 95 percent of the Christmas items for that coming year. Following the great Christmas of 2010, I bought with more confidence in January. A lot of what we buy is based on a gut reaction.
We do most of our buying in Atlanta, which probably has the largest gift mart in the country — it’s three city blocks. The buildings are 14 to 22 stories tall, from the bottom to top full of manufacturers and distributors. If it’s packed with other retailers, that means things will be good. Last January it was packed. Most of the retailers were very excited about the market.
It looks like our guts were right. Sales so far this year have about matched where we were at the end of 2010 — so we are on track to finish ahead of last year.
What’s happening this year is, while our customer count is about the same, we see they’re feeling more comfortable dropping a few dollars.
I’ve had some months of a double-digit percent increase over the same month as last year. October was great. We sold a lot of Halloween items, too. We get a good mix of locals and tourists.
I’m hoping to be 3 or 4 percent ahead of last year.
What we’re finding is that people are tired of being weary. They’re thinking, we’re going to be happy regardless of the economy.
You can only stay down so long before you’ve got to get up.
Jim Abicht owns The Christmas Store in Smithfield, Va.