Retailers have higher hopes for holiday season

New Hampshire shoppers are expected to open their wallets a bit wider this holiday season than they have since the recession began, according to a survey of the state’s retailers. The Retail Merchants Association of New Hampshire conducted the survey of its members and found that 59 percent of the state’s retailers are already reporting sales are the same as or better than last year. Entering into the holiday shopping season – which typically kicks off before even a single turkey sandwich is made the Friday after Thanksgiving – retailers in the state are feeling generally optimistic, with nearly three-quarters, or 74 percent, of the merchants expecting their holiday sales to surpass or at least stay on par with last year’s sales. “I’m anticipating a rock ’n’ roll Christmas,” said Dean Eaton, owner of Your Kitchen Store & More in Keene, which began seeing its first holiday shoppers during leaf-peeping season. Thanks in large part to a recent move to Main St. – which doubled the size of the store and tripled its staff – holiday shopping is already in full swing at the kitchen store, which expanded its seasonal sales force from 17 employees to 30 and has already seen “outstanding” sales of cookware, said Eaton. That optimism is echoed by other New Hampshire retailers, who the survey reports are expecting a 4.6 percent average increase in sales over last year’s levels. Nationally, holiday sales are expected to rise just half that amount, 2.3 percent, over last year, according to numbers from the National Retail Federation. This can be attributed to the state’s lack of sales tax and its subsequent ability to draw in traffic from bordering regions, said Nancy C. Kyle, president of the state merchants association. “I think that we’re coming out of this recession a little bit better and a little bit earlier than a lot of other states,” said Kyle. “It’s going to be slow, but I think we’ve passed the bend.” “The candy and chocolate business has been pretty resilient through the recession,” said Jeffrey Bart, co-owner of Granite State Candy Shoppe in Concord. “Generally speaking, we’re seeing numbers that are a little bit higher than last year.” The family-owned third-generation candy store – which does a large online, wholesale and corporate business – still makes the bulk of its earnings from its walk-in retail trade, and begins seeing holiday shoppers as soon as Halloween is over, says Bart. “We’re seeing a fairly big increase in wholesale demand, with other retailers planning for their holidays early,” he said. The shop’s top holiday sellers — bulk chocolate, roasted nuts and holiday brittles — which often sell out close to Christmas. Still, many retailers are cautious going into the holiday season, with the recession still in recent memory. Last year’s survey showed that less than half – 47 percent – of the state’s retailers expected holiday sales to be on par with or better than the year before. And in 2008, the numbers were decidedly more dismal, with just one-third of retailers expecting their sales to match or exceed the prior year. “We’re mostly just crossing our fingers, hoping for a good season,” said Laura Lucy, owner of White Birch Books in North Conway. After a “very quiet” Halloween weekend – which she feared might be an indicator of the coming shopping season – sales have picked up at the bookstore, which benefits in the winter from Canadian shoppers and visitors to the area ski resorts. “Our weekend traffic every weekend has improved since,” said Lucy, who has expanded her inventory to include toys, cards and stocking stuffers to help drive up sales. She’s not alone – 71 percent of survey respondents reported similar or higher inventory levels than last year. “We’re basically on track with last year right now,” said Lucy. “As for how the whole season is going to pan out, I still am a bit anxious about it. If we stayed on par with last holiday season, we’d be happy.” Online sales are expected to account for a quarter of sales for the 46 percent of responding retailers that offer online shopping. As well, the survey found that nearly half the state’s retailers are using social media to market themselves, a big increase from last year when far fewer embraced the technology, said Kyle. “They’re using it to build their community image and to instill a sense of community and also to offer special discounts, coupons,” said Kyle. “It’s a whole new way of marketing.” The survey also found that more than three-quarters of respondents thought consumer confidence and budget constraints would have the biggest effect on sales this holiday season. As for positive impacts on sales, respondents cited good weather, a better economy and the results of the mid-term election, which they believe will boost consumer confidence. “This is our favorite time of year,” said Lucy. “We see most of our local customers, we try to have a fun time with it.” — KATHLEEN CALLAHAN/NEW HAMPSHRIE BUSINESS REVIEW

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