MAKING SPIRITS BRIGHT

Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK -- Stephanie Robinson shops Wednesday at The Learning Express in Baton Rouge for a family member's Christmas gift. Robinson said she tries to shop early and be finished with her list before December.
Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK -- Stephanie Robinson shops Wednesday at The Learning Express in Baton Rouge for a family member's Christmas gift. Robinson said she tries to shop early and be finished with her list before December.

Local retailers greet holiday shopping season with cautious optimism

A recovering economy has local retailers feeling optimistic about their prospects this holiday shopping season.

And while there is an “extra” weekend before Dec. 25, the usual perils of bad weather and LSU football game scheduling loom as shops across the city prepare to compete for a significant portion of their annual revenue.

“We feel pretty good about it,” Cristina Blanchard, community relations specialist with the local boutique Frock Candy, said, noting the store is hoping to exceed its goal of a 5 percent same-store-sales increase. “We feel like consumer confidence is a little higher. We’ve seen a pretty steady increase through the year, and we think it’s going to continue that way.”

“Everyone always gets excited around the holidays,” said Stefanie Grunitz, retail manager with Bumble Lane at Towne Center.

“No matter how bad a recession the country might be in, they are always excited during the holidays to get someone something or to get something for themselves. Everyone’s got a wish list, no matter what,” Grunitz said.

Retailers’ optimism is understandable, considering the stakes.

“December is about four months of revenue,” said Amy Strother, owner and stylist at Noelie Harmon, the sustainable gifts and accessories shop in the Perkins Road Overpass area. “It’s a good chunk.”

Local retailers often count on customer service and loyalty built on personal relationships to help them compete against national chains that use their muscle to keep prices low for increasingly cost-conscious shoppers. But each retail segment has its own set of competitive challenges.

Aimee Gremillion, owner of Learning Express at Citiplace, said large chains like Target and Wal-Mart are increasingly getting access to the specialty toys and games that she’s always counted on to set her store apart. Competing on price is sometimes out of the question, so Learning Express offers free gift wrapping and personalization in the hopes of helping shoppers keep their dollars local.

Last Christmas season, she said, was difficult.

“Right now, I’m thankful for the business that I have,” she said, noting the store’s holiday catalog has succeeded at bringing people through the door. “I really hope and pray that we do better than last year.”

At the Backpacker, the outdoor apparel shop on Jefferson Highway near Corporate Boulevard and in Lafayette, they have a very particular barometer for the sales season.

“Regardless of what’s been going on in the economy, our business lives and dies by the weather because we sell jackets,” said Operations Manager Tyler Hicks, noting last year was strong, despite the economy, because it was cold. This year, he said, should be as well.

“I know not every retailer is looking for nasty weather outside, but we are,” he said.

Strother, of Noelie Harmon, noted bad weather becomes less of an issue as the season progresses because people have to get out and shop eventually. But she and Hicks pointed out that LSU’s schedule makes a big difference as well.

“Are we going to have a game in the middle of what should be a busy Saturday?” Hicks asked. For example, yesterday’s game was moved up to 2:30 in the afternoon, he noted.

“There goes our entire day,” he said. “That’s a big, big factor.”

“In another city somewhere else in the United States, (Saturday) would be your best selling day,” Strother said. “But on a game day here, it’s not typically your best. On one hand, you’re expected to root for LSU football, but on the other hand, it’s terrible for your revenue.”

Black Friday is typically the domain of national chains, which use deep discounts and door-buster sales to pull in shoppers early for clothing, toys and consumer electronics. But some local retailers, particularly those who have locations in centers with national anchors, are doing some more experimenting with ways to pull people in.

“It’s a very good day for (Frock Candy) and we’re learning more and more about it, because Perkins Rowe is more of a destination place,” Blanchard said.

Mignon Faget New Orleans, for example, is offering $20 gift cards good for December for every $100 spent between Black Friday and Cyber Monday in order to lure people back to its stores to buy more. And every two days on the 12 days before Christmas it will discount a different item, trying to entice a customer to buy, say, not just a pendant but a chain to go with it.

“We think people have been saving their discretionary income to spend at Christmas,” said Amina Harvey, vice president of sales and marketing,

Others market themselves as an oasis, a place where shoppers can get away from the crowds.

At a recent staff meeting at the Backpacker, Hicks said, “what we went over with everybody is if (customers) came out to spend the time to shop with us, they’re doing us a favor so we need to do a favor back ... If they didn’t just order online, that means they want to talk about it and have someone tell them what they should be looking at. Once they get in here, we want to make sure we’re doing everything we can do to give them a great experience.”

Some stores said they are beefing up their e-commerce outlets and using social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. These sites bring new customers from across the country to buy through their websites after discovering their stores through their friends who live here.

Frock Candy’s e-commerce site is two years old and is starting to pick up considerably, Blanchard said.

Grunitz said Bumble Lane recently revamped its website and now Cyber Monday is as big as Black Friday.

“We even have people in New York, and California and Vegas that follow us on Facebook even though they may only come here once a year,” Grunitz said.

Ultimately, the tale of the tape will come early next year when the city-parish releases the retail sales tax collection figures. Spending was indeed healthy last year, but to correct slightly for a natural sense of optimism, the outlook could best be summed up by Strother.

Asked how she felt the season would play out, she replied, “I don’t really venture to guess. I hope it’s at least the same.”