BANGOR, Maine — Oh, the economy outside might be frightful, but area retailers are hopeful that the holiday shopping season still will be delightful — or at least not disastrous.
“Christmas always happens,” a philosophical Brad Ryder, owner of downtown Bangor’s Epic Sports store, said Wednesday. “Some years it happens a little more than others.”
Ryder said he expects some of his hottest items this season to be woolen socks and ice creepers for boots. They’re not big-ticket items, but they’re something, he said.
“People are shopping carefully. Everyone is looking for good value,” Ryder said.
That makes sense, given the tough economic climate. In October, retail sales in the U.S. posted their worst monthly drop on record and the fourth consecutive monthly decline. A Commerce Department report showed retail sales fell 2.8 percent in October from September. Plunging auto sales led the way, but there were declines in virtually every spending category.
With that in mind, many area stores are holding extra sales, pushing smaller, practical gifts and no doubt hoping for a Christmas miracle of their own.
“When there is a recession or times are tough, people buy fewer items, but they buy better. They buy more carefully,” said Cynthia Cavanaugh, co-owner of Best Bib & Tucker Clothiers in downtown Bangor.
Holiday season crucial
Retail businesses generate between 25 percent and 40 percent of their sales during the November and December holiday shopping season, noted University of Maine economics professor Jim McConnon. The season is crucial to retailers, and the across-the-board decline in consumer confidence is a worrying sign because con-sumer spending accounts for two-thirds of the growth in the national economy, he said.
The economy “has a lot of small businesses nervous about what to expect in terms of consumer shopping,” McConnon said. “I would say merchants should be cautiously optimistic about this shopping season” — in part because of the plunging cost of gasoline and home heating fuel and the fact that buying presents around the holidays is an American tradition.
“The shopping season is a special time. I think it’s something a lot of people enjoy doing,” McConnon said.
He noted that “Black Friday” — the day after Thanksgiving — is one of the most important shopping days in the season, even with the recession.
“I expect this year that [shoppers will] be out in hordes [on Black Friday], just like they were last year and the year before. I think they’ll be more value-conscious than in years past. I think they’ll be creating lists to shop by. I think they’ll be a more savvy consumer,” McConnon said.
The Canadian factor
At the Bangor Mall, the early signs for the holiday shopping season seemed promising earlier this week, even though Santa hadn’t landed yet (he’ll be arriving at 11 a.m. today).
Shopper Joann Spurvey of Halifax, Nova Scotia, seemed like a throwback to happier economic times.
“There’s Christmas shopping to be done,” she said Tuesday while browsing at the Calendar Club store in the mall. “I’m psyched. I have so much money to spend, and I can’t wait.”
Bangor Mall General Manager James Gerety said that shoppers such as Spurvey will find lots of reasons to rejoice this year. He stressed the affordability of many of the mall’s offerings and added that it won’t be skimping on the seasonal cheer.
In addition to Santa Claus and his photo opportunities, exhausted shoppers will have the chance to relax on couches while watching holiday movies in a hospitality center next to KB Toys. That’s also where gift-wrappers will wrap presents for charity. The mall will be dotted by seasonal stands such as Bob’s Sugarhouse and a booth stuffed with material from Maine comedian Bob Marley.
“I’m looking forward to seeing a lot of people shopping and having a good time and just enjoying the season,” Gerety said. “While we’re in some tough economic times, I think there’s going to be some good values.”
Canadian shoppers are helping to ease some of the economic pressure. Last weekend the mall was jampacked with Canadians shopping during their Nov. 11 Remembrance Day holiday. Gerety counted 13 Canadian tour buses at the mall last Saturday and said it’s not unusual to see one or two buses every weekend.
“We’ve had them consistently all year long, and they are dedicated to shopping,” Gerety said. “We’re fortunate because we’re so close to the border. It’s helping our tenants. It’s a tough retail environment right now, and they are helping us boost our sales.”
Bangor continues to be a strong retail destination, Gerety said. Bangor Mall shoppers come from throughout central Maine all the way into Canada. Two- and three-hour drives to get to the mall are not unusual — and an eight-hour driving odyssey such as Joann Spurvey’s happens, too.
“In different parts of the country, they don’t understand it,” Gerety said, describing how some Massachusetts residents might have a selection of malls to choose from in a small geographic region.
Gerety said that in the past, the holiday shopping season was a “fairly large percentage” of the mall’s annual sales.
“That’s not true any longer,” he said.
Still, 25 percent to 30 percent of the mall’s yearly traffic comes through the doors in the six-week period around the holidays, he said. “Some tenants are very seasonal and it is very, very important.”
Downtown mood hopeful
Leslie Thistle’s cozy, crowded Bangor Wine and Cheese Co. is packed with bottles of wine and gourmet beer. She said that she hopes to generate business by helping people pair wine and beer with their holiday feasts. Especially in this tough economy, Thistle said, a little pleasure can go a long way.
“We need wine to enjoy and we need chocolate,” she said. “Wine is something that everybody needs to have.”
The mood downtown Wednesday was hopeful rather than desperate. Retailers were readying their holiday window displays, and Giacomo’s Groceria was bustling with coffee-drinking shoppers.
Catby Anderson, owner of the Briar Patch book and gift store, said she hopes that a new book by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling will spur sales.
“I think books are the best thing for your money out there, because reading can open so many doors,” she said.
Anderson said she has been noticing that more and more people seem to be aware of how important local shopping is to the health of a community.
“It makes a huge difference,” she said. “Even one extra sale matters.”
Some storeowners said they do a good trade in Maine-made specialty items and hope that demand will remain steady.
Rick Vigue, the owner of Rebecca’s Gift Shop, said he expects to sell more useful gifts than usual — including custom-made food baskets featuring the store’s private-label goodies.
“It is Christmas. We’ve conserved a lot this year. Now it’s time to treat ourselves,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.