There may be 36 shopping days left until Christmas, but certain items are already flying off area shelves: Monogrammed toilet paper ($21 for two rolls) at Heritage in Friendship Heights, Bloody Mary mix ($12 a pop) at Red Barn Mercantile in Alexandria, and doggie polo shirts by Ralph Lauren ($45) at Bloomingdale’s.
“It’s mostly hostess gifts right now,” said Patricia Ferrell, a manager and buyer at Heritage, a home furnishings store in Mazza Gallerie in Friendship Heights. “A lot of times people don’t know what to give, but a personalized gift goes very well.”
And, Ferrell points out, it doesn’t get much more personal than monogrammed toilet paper.
As the economy continues to find its footing, analysts are predicting lackluster sales growth this holiday season. The average shopper is expected to spend just $9 more than the $740 he or she spent last year, according to a survey by BigInsight.
But even as consumers hold the line, they appear ready to buy gifts for more people than they did last year, adding co-workers, friends and pets to their shopping lists, according to the National Retail Federation. Holiday parties and office gift exchanges are coming back, too — and with them, a need for hostess gifts and trinkets for colleagues.
Local shop owners are responding by offering a larger selection of small gifts this year — the type you’d tuck into stockings or give co-workers — and are making sure they’re neatly packaged.
Area Brooks Brothers stores are stocked with bow ties, while Pink Palm, a women’s store in Old Town Alexandria, has filled its shelves with $48 ornaments and $118 Lilly Pulitzer scarves.
“It’s about ‘giftables’ this year,” Pink Palm store manager Allison Luchey said. “Makeup bags, wristlets, ornaments — and of course we’ve been selling a ton of iPhone and iPad cases.”
A few doors down, spherical ice molds ($13.50) have emerged as the season’s big seller at The Hour, a shop that specializes in barware.
“Ice cubes are the big thing in the cocktail world right now,” said Victoria Vergason, the store’s owner. “Some people like them square, some people like them round.”
“[Customers] will come in and say, ‘This is a great stocking stuffer ... and maybe I’ll buy one for myself, too,” she added.
To keep up with growing demand for on-the-go hostess gifts, employees at Red Barn Mercantile have begun creating gift baskets of items such as soap and candles. Other stores are taking similar steps.
“All anyone wants to know about is, ‘Does this come in a box?’ ” said Benjamin Walker of Walker Home in Alexandria. “They want mobile gifts — scarves, ornaments, something they can pack in a carry-on and get through security.”
At the TJ Maxx in Friendship Heights, Laura Olson had filled her cart with Lenox ornaments ($16.99 each, down from a $60 list price) and a decorative snowman with a bobbing head.
“When I come in here, I buy generic gifts that are super-cute,” she said. “And then I’ll give them away to friends — or else, you know, maybe keep them for myself.”
Olson hadn’t meant to start her Christmas shopping so early this year. She’d stopped by the store to pick up headphones to take to the gym, but one thing led to another.
“I work down the street so I do this all the time,” she said of her mid-day shopping spree. “I come here at least twice a week.”
As of last Tuesday, 53 percent of people surveyed by the National Retail Federation said they’d already begun their holiday shopping. Andrew Jackson was not one of those people — although, to be fair, he’d spent the day window shopping on Wisconsin Avenue in Friendship Heights.
“I was off today, so I decided to come up here and browse around,” Jackson, who works at the D.C. Superior Court, said last Tuesday. “I have to think up gifts for some friends, and then I have my sisters. They like pocketbooks and shoes, so I’m going to get them some flats, something comfortable, but I won’t do that until after Thanksgiving.”
Retailers are doing their best to nab customers as early as possible by offering sweeping discounts even before Black Friday approaches. Even so, many area stores say they’ve yet to see a big rush of holiday shoppers.
“Not too many men are coming in yet — big surprise, huh?” said Angela Mbaye, who works at the Brooks Brothers in Chevy Chase. “But the ladies are starting to come in to buy for their husbands and their kids.”
The focus may be on smaller-tag accessories this year, but that’s not to say customers aren’t still shopping for — or at least gawking at — pricier items.
At the Saks Fifth Avenue Men’s Store in Mazza Gallerie, a pair of $680 Prada Levitates, an ostentatious dress shoe with clear soles and red fringe, has become the center of attention.
“We like to display them up front because people like to come in and look at them,” an employee said. “That’s not to say they’re popular yet, but they’re definitely a talking point.”
Even at The Hour, where ice molds and cocktail napkins are top-sellers, there is an appetite for higher-priced items during the holidays.
“This time of year, it’s all about champagne flutes and old martini shakers,” Vergason said, gesturing toward a 1920s shaker priced at $575. “And our very cute vintage Santa glasses — they’re four for $100, and we can never keep them in the store long enough.”
Sue Noguchi was shopping for her two daughters and five grandchildren — ages 9, 6, 5, 3, and one month — last week. She’d been reading up on baby-food makers, and stopped by Giggle, a children’s shop in Friendship Heights, to look at them in person.
“This is a mecca of baby fantasy,” Noguchi said, as her husband waited in one of the store’s rocking chairs. “I’ve dropped a lot of coin at this shop. I mean, I go to the other stores that I need to go to first and then I come here and say ‘Okay, I have a little bit of money left.’”
Noguchi checked out the Beaba Babycook which, for $149, promises to steam, blend, defrost and reheat homemade purees. She wasn’t too impressed.
“Honestly, I will probably go buy it from Amazon,” she said.