Independent Retailers Report Healthy Holiday Sales
January 19, 2011,
Classic Home Inc., in Lake Como, N.J.
"[The holiday] was a turning point for our company in both profi ts and sales," said Richard Smith-Allen, owner of Warm Things in San Rafael, Calif. "People were having fun shopping."
According to Smith-Allen, over the years the store was consistently visited by shoppers outfi tting their vacation mountain homes. That business disappeared with the recession, but it's now back, he noted. Best sellers for Warm Things included down comforters, throws and pillows.
"We had a great holiday season, and were up quite a bit from last year," said Vickie Blanchard, co-owner of Fraiche on the Avenues, Richmond, Va. The store has a thriving bridal registry and did well with custom linens from Matouk. Custom shoppers typically spent between $150 to $300.
"People that want quality were definitely inspired to spend," noted Pearl Fitzgerald, owner of Classic Home Inc., in Lake Como, N.J. Throws, as well as sheets and bedding from Home Treasures were all doing well. The store also sells baby bedding and accessories, which is a strong year-round seller.
Mrs. Howard, a chain of stores servicing interior designers, found its customers purchasing more than last year, as people were more spirited about decorating for Christmas. Owner Phoebe Howard, a designer herself, noted that small design accessories, including decorative pillows were a hot item.
"People were investing in quality," noted Laura Colangelo, manager of The Brass Bed of Denver. Upscale SDH linens as well as robes and throws were big sellers for the stores: "Everything for updating the master bedroom and getting the guest room ready for the mother-in-law," she noted. Colangelo also noticed more color, with customers buying outside the neutral box.
"Things are going well for us, even as the January white sale is going on," said Penny Murphy, owner, Pioneer Linens, West Palm Beach, Fla. "We're very fortunate to be in a seasonal area, so we get a lot of people fixing up their homes."
Offerings from Sferra and Home Treasures were among Pioneer Linens' better performers. Pioneer Linens will be celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2012. The store was founded by Max Greenburg and run by industry veteran George Greenberg before daughter Penny Murphy took the helm.
"We were busier than I expected," said Jenny Mutter, owner of Hestia Luxury Linens, Covington, La. Though her customers had money to spend even during the worst of the economy, Mutter noted that everyone still wants to make sure they are getting a good deal. Bamboo sheets are currently her biggest seller, with other "green" items also sparking interest.
Location, location, location is a prime consideration for independent retailers and was also a factor both before and after the Christmas holiday.
Jeff Mulert, owner of Feathers, said the trendy Pittsburgh, Pa., street where his store is located saw good traffic, but it didn't quite compare to stronger regional malls. Still, the retailer saw people buying "better goods and merchandise that is exclusive and not available at the chain stores."
Stores in the Northeast also lost traffic due to the huge snow storm that hit. Classic Homes had its store closed for four and half days post Christmas. "Because of our location on the Jersey shore, our strongest months are actually in summer," noted owner Pearl Fitzgerald, who reported that sales for December were up about 11% compared to the previous year.
Online sales also impacted the independents, which are in various stages of online growth - from getting their toes wet to running a thriving website.
"The strength of the season really showed online," reported Smith-Allen of Warm Things, which boasts an extensive website as well as a mail order catalog.
At Bedside Manor Ltd. - a four-unit boutique in the Chicago area - results were mixed according to owner Meg Carroll. Two stores did very well, while the other two saw less traffic. However, there was no mistaking the internet results. "Our website was down for about two months this year as we updated it. Even with that, our internet sales are up about 30%. We stay on top of it," said Carroll.
Brass Bed of Denver has an informational site, but is looking to expand it.
Fraiche on the Avenues lets shoppers look at its bridal registries online, but doesn't have a fully operating e-commerce site yet. "It's a project for 2011; we want to expand the site so people can shop the bridal registry and then we'll work on it further," said Blanchard.
At Hestia Luxury Linens, start-up costs in designing and launching an e-commerce website are significant issues, but Mutter is working to develop an ecommerce site in 2011. "We currently have an informational site and it generates a lot of calls; so does our Facebook page. The website is the next step," she said.
Advertising and promotion to lure people to the stores varied significantly from retailer to retailer, as well for the season. Mulert of Feathers said he increased his advertising budget by about 20% for November and December, using direct mail, billboards and local magazines.
"We actually did a little less advertising this year," reported Smith-Allen of Warm Things. "We felt like we wasted money last year, so this year used our mail order catalog and we increased the number of percentage off coupons, which we gave people at check out for a next visit."
Fraiche on the Avenues was one of four stores on its street which sponsored a "Martini and Mistletoe" evening, giving visitors a free martini. The company has accumulated a good sized e-mail roster and also sent out promotional emails. According to Blanchard, digital marketing (the store is also on Facebook) worked better compared to nearby stores using traditional promotional postcards.
Across the board, the mood was upbeat. "People are less afraid and more comfortable buying," noted Smith-Allen of Warm Things. "It's not a flood gate, but it's steady."