Local retailers are feeling merry about holiday sales

By Rhiannon Root, NewsNetNebraska

Nebraskans may be dreaming of a white Christmas, but retailers are thinking about a green one.

Holiday shopping is in full swing in the Capital City. Nationally, shoppers are estimated to spend more than $800 on gifts, which is up from $646 last year, according to the American Research Group. Locally, retailers are hopeful about the amount of money Lincoln shoppers are willing to spend this holiday season.

“We’re very optimistic about shopping this year,” said Ryan Bouc the director of marketing at Gateway Mall, which has added new businesses to the center in the past year, including Neebo and Teavana.

At SouthPointe Pavilions, on the south end of the city, marketing director Julie Lattimer feels equally positive about the holiday season. Many of the stores performed well during Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and the official kick-off for the shopping season, she said.  One store doubled its sales from last year’s Black Friday, Lattimer noted.

Shoppers spend different amounts of money for different people. This data from the National Retail Association shows that no matter what your relationship this year, you'll probably get better presents.

The importance of holiday sales can’t be stressed enough, retailers said. Some businesses do up to 40 percent of their total sales during the holiday season, Bouc said.

To help keep those sales robust, Bouc said Gateway increases its hours, and many stores hire seasonal help. The mall’s employee workforce swells to 1,500 or more workers.

Brion Westfahl, general manager of the Sears at Gateway, said the store normally has about 120 employees. During the holiday shopping season, the store adds 45 to 50 workers. Westfahl begins training the holiday help as soon as September.

Part of the battle is preparing his employees for the long hours and crowds, Westfahl said. The shoppers are coming no matter what, he said.

“We have to be ready,” Westfahl said. Working 70 to 80 hours a week isn’t uncommon for employees, he said.

Stores are trying to maximize sales by opening earlier and preparing earlier. Lattimer said she and her team start talking about Black Friday and the holiday season during the balmy summer months. Several of the stores in SouthPointe were open at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving.

But in the end, those efforts paid off apparently. Black Friday sales were strong, up more than 12 percent, and exceeded expectations, according to the National Retail Federation.

The trend of stores opening earlier on Thanksgiving is consumer-driven, both Bouc and Lattimer said.

“If  Thanksgiving shopping weren’t so popular, the stores wouldn’t continue to stay open,” she said.  Three years ago, the only stores that were open at midnight on Black Friday in Lincoln were in SouthPointe, but because they had successful sales (locally and nationally), more stores jumped on the bandwagon this year.

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Right now is a time of experimentation for retailers, who are trying to figure out when early is too early, Bouc said.  Gateway was successful with a midnight opening last year, so the mall did so again this year. However, some stores opened earlier than midnight, including Sears, where the crowds were large. Westfahl said about 500 people lined up outside Sears’s doors on Thanksgiving waiting for the store to open at 8 p.m. Some of the people were lined up at early as 10 a.m.

During the holiday season, retailers also worry about consumers’ perceptions about the economy. Customers can be easily spooked by economic stories that the media report on, Westfahl said. And if customers hold off on spending during the make-or-break holiday season, businesses could be harmed.

The fiscal cliff

The current boogeyman in the news is the fiscal cliff, the shorthand for when certain federal tax cuts expire and tax increases kick-in.

“The fiscal cliff isn’t going to be the Grinch that (ruined) Christmas,” said Eric Thompson, an associate professor of economics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who noted the strong Black Friday sales.

But, he said, “there could be an impact next year.”

The holiday shopping season is predictable economically, Thompson said. While the American economy wouldn’t look terribly different  without a gift-giving holiday in the fourth quarter, it’s important for businesses to do well during this time, he said.

 

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