N.H. retailers have hopes for Xmas

Nearly two-thirds of New Hampshire retailers expect that their 2011 holiday sales will be the same as or better than last year.That’s according to the annual holiday survey conducted by the Retail Merchants Association of New Hampshire, which found that retailers in the state expect their holiday sales to be up 3.1 percent over last year.Steve Levy, owner of Toy City in Keene, hopes to double or triple that figure. He anticipates holiday sales at his 39-year-old “old-fashioned toy store” will be up 6 to 9 percent over last year.”(The customers are) in a great mood, so I’m looking forward to a stellar Christmas season,” said Levy, who has already seen his first holiday shoppers trickling in to peruse his selection of board games, baby merchandise and high-quality kids’ toys.The study found that most retailers — 84 percent — are keeping their inventory at the same levels as last year or higher, while two-thirds said they’re hiring extra holiday help.As she does every year, Lynda Schuepp will hire part-time gift-wrappers to help with the influx of Christmas shoppers at her North Conway store, The Penguin Gallery, which sells more than 10,000 unique gifts and trinkets.She said she’s anticipating a good holiday season and attributes that to being in a tourist area, which “tends to be a little bit insulated” from a sluggish economy.”Last year was a record year for us — it’s kind of surprising because everybody else seemed to be having more difficulties,” she said. “We noticed it slowing down a little bit this year, but it’s still the second best year in the history of the store.”Both Schuepp and Levy sell online through their websites, but make most of their sales in-store. Half the survey respondents also offer online shopping, and some expect to make up to a quarter of their sales online this year.Cautious consumersWhen it comes to marketing, the survey found more retailers are using social media, predominantly Facebook and Twitter. Two-thirds of respondents are marketing through social media, up from the 47 percent that were last year. But when it comes to the latest way to market straight to smartphones — QR codes — none of the retailers polled said they’re using them.And as for that pesky Halloween snowstorm that littered streets with fallen branches and knocked out some New Hampshire residents’ power for a week? Some retailers saw its silver lining, generally viewing it as a positive because it got consumers thinking about the holidays even earlier than usual.But too many of those big storms will likely keep people in their homes — and more inclined to shop online, said Alison Murphy, who runs Concord Handmade, a pop-up holiday store in Concord that sells locally made and hand-crafted goods.While last year she wasn’t able to find a landlord who would accept such a short-term lease — her store opened Nov. 1 and will close the beginning of January — this year she was able to secure one for a spot on South Main Street.”(Customers are) excited to be able to support local artists, they like to know the story behind what they’re buying,” said Murphy. Being downtown has helped to draw passersby into her store, but she said that so far shoppers have been cautious in their purchases, something retailers in the study also indicated.Other factors that retailers indicated would negatively impact sales this season were consumer budget constraints, negative media reports and, on a regional level, higher unemployment rates in the northern part of the state.They don’t expect it to improve much next year, either. The study found that retailers are anticipating signs of a slow economic recovery continuing into next year, with some expressing concerns about how consumer confidence would be impacted based on how the federal government dealt with the deficit and debt ceiling.”You wake up every day, you don’t know how people are feeling, you are worried about your neighbors going out of business,” said Deborah Bouchard-Smith, owner of Maine-ly New Hampshire in Portsmouth, which sells a variety of items from all over New England, including gift baskets that are popular holiday sellers.”There’s certainly not a feeling of optimism. We have a very loyal clientele, we’re going to be just fine, but there are a lot of businesses I worry about.” — KATHLEEN CALLAHAN/NEW HAMPSHIRE BUSINESS REVIEW

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