Local merchants banking on holiday sales

Local merchants banking on holiday sales

Michele Ellson

Daisy’s owner Barbara Mooney starts buying Christmas ornaments for her Park Street boutique not too long after the New Year’s Eve ball has dropped.

“Somebody said, ‘What do you do for Thanksgiving?’ I said, ‘I enjoy my kids, because the day after, they become employees,’” Mooney quipped.

While much of the attention paid to the holiday shopping season is focused on major retailers and the deals they’re offering on “it” gifts to entice customers, holiday sales are equally critical to the small, independent retailers whose shops populate Alameda’s Park Street shopping district.

“It’s probably 25 percent. Or maybe higher. A huge part of our business is in the last 45 days of the year,” said Dan Marshall, the longtime owner of Du Vin Fine Wines on Santa Clara who is transitioning his shop into a beer and wine outfit newly dubbed Craft Beer & Wine.

And while local merchants may not be able to compete with big box retailers on price, they said they offer customers more unique gifts to put under the Christmas tree and much better service than they’ll find in chain stores.

“When I’ve gone shopping, I’ve noticed that the people in the smaller stores are just happier,” said Toni Hudson, who owns Goods, a new Santa Clara Avenue shop that sells artisanal food items, soaps, blankets and other “functional” gifts.

Holiday sales can represent as much as 40 percent of a retailer’s business, according to the National Retail Federation, which tracks holiday and other shopping trends – numbers Mooney and others said apply to chain stores and independent retailers alike. So far, they said, their holiday business has been good.

Craft Beer & Wine’s Marshall said his shop is as busy this holiday season as it has always been; Goods’ Hudson said the quest for holiday gifts has introduced a lot more shoppers to her store.

“More people are coming in and buying stuff,” she said.

While some credited Alameda’s small-town feel with attracting residents who are predisposed to support independent, local merchants, others said there’s a growing desire among shoppers in general to spend their money locally and to support small businesses.

“There’s a change in the wind. People care about where they spend their money,” said Donna Layburn, who owns the Alameda Marketplace and is the incoming president of the Park Street Business Association.

A 2012 survey of 1,768 local businesses in 49 states conducted by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit research group that advocates for local community development, found that independent local retailers’ 2011 holiday sales rose 6.7 percent over the previous year, compared with 4.1 percent for retailers overall. The survey also found that awareness of the benefits of shopping locally was growing.

The sales increases are higher in communities that launch “shop local” campaigns, the group found – a phenomenon the city is banking on as it launches its Alameda Island Shopper campaign this holiday season as part of a multi-pronged effort to boost Alameda’s anemic sales tax base. (In addition to the awareness-building campaign, the city is offering free parking in its Park Street and Webster Street shopping districts on Saturdays through December.)

“People should make Alameda their first choice for shopping because it keeps their sales tax dollars in Alameda, supports local merchants and generates local jobs, maintains a healthy environment, and builds a sense of community and preserves Alameda's unique charm,” said Debbie Potter, the city’s community development director.

Customers who have drifted away from Park Street and other cities’ Main Street shopping districts to purchase their clothing and food basics, electronics and other items are returning to hunt for more unique and higher quality items, Layburn and other Park Street merchants said.

“We’re seeing people who no longer want to be generic,” she said.

Layburn said her grocery is seeing a surge of new customers and an increase in the number of items they buy this year. The Marketplace’s pantry store, which sits across from its grocery, has become a mecca for cooks seeking hard-to-find items and kitchen items manufactured in the United States.

While the Park Stret shopping district has seen some notable closures this year – including the Silver Tree gift shop and couturier M Zoe, which is going out of business – it has gained the Goods, Pixies & Peony and Dandelion Flowers & Gifts boutiques, the Alameda See Spot Run pet shop, high-end vintage dress shop Juniper Tree Vintage and Shop Mixcrate, a clothes and accessories boutique for the DJ-and-skater set.

Local merchants also seek to woo customers with a more personal touch, they said. Daisy’s keeps track of the items their customers desire so that if a shopper is seeking a gift for that person, the store is ready to help out, Mooney said. Staffers at Books Inc., meanwhile, offer customers a deep knowledge of the books they sell – and a willingness to break the city’s parking rules every once in a while.

Manager Nick Petrulakis said his staff offered an elderly customer parked far from the Park Street bookstore drive-up service, so she wouldn’t have to carry three large bags of purchases to her car.

“I can’t tell you how grateful this woman was,” Petrulakis said.