Retailers Staying Realistic With Holiday Shopping Hopes

OCEAN CITY — Local retailers are hoping the biggest shopping day of the year kick starts an improved holiday shopping season for 2009, but few are expecting a vast improvement from last year.

Area merchants are admittedly cautiously optimistic about the looming holiday shopping season, and as Black Friday approached this week, a few of them hinted at some of their strategies, expectations and concerns.

Collectively, however, all retail stores are thrilled with the news that the Route 90 bridge has been re-opened to traffic, providing an added bonus for retailers bracing for more slow sales, but all the while hoping for an improvement over last year’s numbers.

“We were planning for the bridge not to be open so the fact that it is open three weeks early and right before Thanksgiving is great,” said South Moon Under Director of Marketing Gage Lester. “We think that it will help our Ocean City store tremendously because it’s been hurting us for several weeks.”

Mark Pugh, co-owner of K-Coast Surf Shop in Ocean City, agreed that the bridge news would help business.

“I think the bridge re-opening will have a bit of a trickle down effect for us, especially because it will help restaurant employees make some money for the holiday shopping season, as they’ve been getting hammered financially while it was closed,” he said.

Pugh said that his company’s strategy for 2009 is similar to 2008, but his hope for results are a bit more optimistic this year.

“This Christmas season I expect it to be similar to last year, but with us having searched out some great deals for our customers, I am somewhat optimistic we can increase numbers over last year’s,” said Pugh. “We are still well stocked and it is our sales strategy that while others may cut back we can gain market share by keeping a full inventory with a friendly, knowledgeable staff.”

Nationwide reports say that even though the economy is showing a minimal rise, and consumer confidence in opening their proverbial wallets is incrementally rising as well, value will continue to be the king this holiday shopping season.

Outlet malls, both locally and nationally, are hoping to see an increase as a result of shoppers actively pursuing the best deals.

“Anecdotally, we expect there to be much more interest in outlet shopping this year,” said Ocean City Factory Outlets Marketing and Property Manger Renee Kelly. “Our retailers are poised to cater to the pent-up demand from consumers with strong, tangible specials and values.  Shoppers will not be disappointed, and we believe the sale numbers will bear that out.”

National Retail Sales Estimates (NRSE) are projecting a bit of good news and bad news for the 2009 season, as it is calling for a 1.6-percent increase, but a 4.2-percent decrease in foot traffic.

Simply put, people may spend a little more than they did last year, but they will be visiting fewer stores, for less amounts of time.

Still, the nationwide estimates seems to hint that this holiday shopping season will be an improvement from last year, as retail sales dropped 6 percent while foot traffic dropped by almost 15 percent in 2008.

Kelly says that as confidence grows in the state of the economy, so will retail sales.

“The retail industry will mirror the strength of the rising confidence of the consumer, and overall, that confidence appears to be a bit more commonplace [this year],” she said.

Still, local retailers are hoping for the best this year and are doing all they can to not only cater to their core customer base, while attempting to attract the value-driven new customers with seemingly “can’t miss” opportunities.

“Most stores have forecasted a bit down this year, but surprisingly, chain-wide, our 12 stores through the Mid-Atlantic are doing pretty well thus far,” said Lester. “You can look at the numbers in the first quarter and realize that people are making less and buying less as a result, but things have been picking up recently.”

Pugh said that even retailers turn into shoppers in the holiday season and stressed that everyone is in the same proverbial boat during the holidays, trying to navigate towards the best prices.

“We know many local people are on a tight budget, but as a company, both the staff and the owners when we aren’t working are essentially the customers of our customers as we are all riding this economic storm out together,” said Pugh. “We appreciate our local business tremendously, and we try to keep as many dollars in our own community as possible.”

Throughout this holiday season, the one thing that retailers seem to be in total concurrence about is the hope that if consumers feel that they are getting a great deal, they may spend more, thus making it a bit more of a happy holiday for the retail business in comparison to last year.

“The values are solid, so the consumer is going to feel good about what they spend at the Factory Outlets this year,” said Kelly. “Hopefully, that will lead to incremental spending.”