Retailers hope for a shopping lift

A survey of New Hampshire retailers finds them not quite all merry and bright, but a lot more positive than some other sectors going into the 2008 holiday shopping season.

A survey conducted before Black Friday – the traditional start of the holiday shopping season — by the Retail Merchants Association of New Hampshire of 30 percent of its members found sales so far in 2008 were the same as or better than last year, and 33 percent of association members said that they expect their holiday sales to be better or the same as last year.

But in 2007, 71 percent of those surveyed said their yearly sales were as good or better than the previous year, with 85 percent saying they thought their holiday sales would be the same or greater.

Nearly 60 percent of those surveyed said staff will be at the same levels as last year, and many of these responded that they expect their online sales will continue to increase.

In 2007, 35 percent said they’d be hiring additional employees for the holiday shopping season.

While New Hampshire retailers pointed to the uncertain economy and consumer confidence as having a major impact on holiday sales, the credit crisis seems to be at the bottom of their naughty list. In fact, only 5 percent felt the inability to get credit or financing for inventory would be a problem.

In 2007, the merchants that were surveyed said staffing was the major concern followed by increased cost of goods and freight.

Lower gas prices will benefit New Hampshire merchants, Kyle said. While the Granite State has often been a shopping destination for Massachusetts residents because of the lack of a sales tax, Kyle said she believes New Hampshire will prove an even stronger pull this year.

Joining forces

Meanwhile, at least some retailers in New Hampshire are joining together in an effort to bring people into their stores.

For example, storeowners on Hanover Street in downtown Manchester have banded together to share resources.

The Shoppes of Historic Downtown in Manchester, a newly created merchants association, recently launched a Web site with the slogan “Downtown’s Got It!” — More than 40 Manchester shops, restaurants, galleries, pubs and salons participate in the initiative to encourage shoppers to bring their business downtown.

The goal is to hold at least one event each month to bring shoppers to the stores.

For example, in October an Oktoberfest was held, featuring special promotions and events. In November, the organization put together a “Moonlight Holiday Shopping Stroll” in conjunction with the downtown promotional organization Intown Manchester.

The organization was planning a “Shop Hop” for Dec. 6, designed to entice those who come downtown for the city’s Christmas Parade held on the same day into their stores.

The addition of several new stores and restaurants downtown, Lewry said, in and of itself has been encouraging to existing retailers.

Kathy Hamel is the owner of With Heart and Hand, which she describes as a “unique gift shop” on Elm Street, and is a member of the association. She said the downtown merchants came together to give shoppers an alternative to the mall.

“It’s a group of us downtown that banded together to give shoppers a more positive shopping experience,” she said.

Hamel said she is unsure of how her store will fare due to the struggling economy, but after the kickoff of the official shopping season post-Thanksgiving, she’ll have a better understanding of the direction sales will take this year.

Retailers in other parts of the state also are joining forces to bring in shoppers.

Jeff Wheeler, owner of Village Book Store on Main Street in Littleton, said downtown stores are planning events like Christmas caroling and gingerbread house contests to attract shoppers downtown.

But Wheeler said he expects sales in his bookstore will be down from seasons past.

“Judging by everything I’ve heard from everybody else and our own experience these last weeks following the fall,” he said his expectations are “not very bright.”

But Lisa Gavin, owner of Alapage Boutique in Bedford, said support from her vendors has helped her business thrive.

“I’m being very optimistic, I’m probably the only one,” Gavin said. “But business is great. People have actually started a little earlier this year. We’ve already had a lot of people in doing holiday shopping. We’re hoping for the best and guessing it might be about the same as last year, and last year we had a great year.”