Many independent retailers are enjoying the best holiday shopping season in years, thanks in part to the recovering economy.
But even with consumer spending showing signs of revival this year, there isn't a lot of wiggle room, with ever-increasing competition from online sellers and discount-driven chains. Independents can ring up 40 percent of their annual sales during November and December, making the holiday season crucial for survival.
Some are fighting to make it to the brighter days expected in 2011, pushing "shop local" initiatives, using social media like Facebook and Twitter, running more aggressive sales and thinking of other creative ways to win business.
CMI Jewelry Showroom in North Raleigh held the first sale in its 40-year history this month.
Generally, the company doesn't have enough of a markup to be able to offer sales, said co-owner Kim Vincent. But store representatives shopped especially for underpriced items that it could offer at steeper discounts.
"The key word for people these days is: 'Is it on sale?'" Vincent said. "That did bring us about 50 percent more customers that weekend, and half of them were new customers. That's very important to us because 97 percent of the people who walk in our door come from referrals."
It's crucial for small business owners to be creative to get the attention of shoppers, who are being bombarded with offers, e-mail and advertisements, said Dan Butler, vice president of operations for the National Retail Federation.
The group is predicting a 3.3 percent increase in holiday sales this year, an improvement over recent years. But small retailers often do not receive the same boost as national chains.
At the At Ease Boutique stores in Cary and Raleigh, owner Carol Daley has been ordering different items for each store, trying to encourage shoppers to visit both locations and tell their friends. She also introduced a clearance area in the newer Cary store, adding about 100 items each week to draw shoppers.
"Through the years, I've gotten to know some of the designers, and they've sold me some of their samples or extra items," she said. "It's really gotten a lot of interest from our Cary shoppers, and even some of our Raleigh shoppers know about it from our e-mail list."
Many local retailers are turning to Facebook and other social media for help in luring customers.
This month, North Raleigh Florist is launching a Facebook promotion that offers a deal of the week for a certain number of the store's Facebook friends.
"We just feel like it's the right thing to do, because our Facebook fans have shown a lot of loyalty to us," owner Janice Cutler said. "It keeps them engaged and gives them something other people don't have. It's just a pretty easy thing to do."
Sales at the store have rebounded this year, up 30 percent for Thanksgiving, Cutler said. She expects about the same for Christmas.
North Raleigh Florist also kept people's tighter budgets in mind this year, offering options at $30 and less. "Some of them have sold out because they were so popular," she said.
Not everyone is having that much success.
Cheryl Fraser, owner of the Galatea boutique in Raleigh, said sales of accessories, scarves, gloves and jewelry are strong this year, but apparel sales are still soft. She said traffic has been "dropping off considerably" for the past few years.
"My customers work, for the most part, and they are so busy," she said. "They don't have time to shop. I feel like we're always seeing someone running in and saying, 'I need a top for tonight and I have to leave in 10 minutes, because I have to pick up the kids from carpool"
Fraser first tried offering appointments for people who could not make it to the store during regular business hours, and this month she launched an online store through her company website. "Anything we can do to make it easier to shop," she said.
Keep it local
Retailers may be benefiting this year from the increased attention being paid to shop-local initiatives.
While the concept has been around for years, it is gaining momentum, said Tom Campbell, co-owner of the Regulator Bookshop in Durham and founder of the Independent Durham merchant group. Sales at the Regulator have been about flat this year, but that's good, because the weather has kept shoppers away during some crucial days this year, Campbell said.
"People are feeling really good about Durham these days," he said. "Five years ago, this kind of thing wouldn't have maybe had as much traction. But there are people definitely coming in here talking about they've decided they're just going to do all of their shopping locally this year."
The Downtown Raleigh Alliance this month organized two consecutive weekend events to get shoppers downtown. One on Dec. 4, which was tied to the Winterfest celebration, helped draw customers to Amplified Art, said co-owner Diana Tong.
"I think people are being able to spend a little bit more money," she said. "I'm not sure honestly if it was all the shop-downtown program or a combination of the snow and Winterfest events downtown, but it was one of our best sales days."
Still, there's no telling how many of these offers and discounts will be repeated, especially if the economy improves. Vincent at CMI Jewelry Showroom said customers should not expect to see more sales from the company.
"We truly did it as a one-time event," he said. "Because of the atmosphere, we felt like this was the only way. It's likely to never happen again. Or OK. I'll promise in 40 years, we'll do it one more time."
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