BANGOR, Maine — The Saturday before Christmas is many merchants’ busiest day, as last-minute shoppers search for inspiration and bargains.
At The Grasshopper Shop in downtown Bangor, Bob Alexander was looking through a stack of women’s gloves, lingering over a cozy-looking pair made of dark brown fabric and trimmed at the wrists with fake fur. His wife, he said, has indicated she would appreciate a pair of warm gloves for Christmas.
Alexander, who lives in Bangor, admitted that Saturday marked the beginning of his holiday shopping, but he rejected the term “last-minute.”
“I’m a guy,” he protested. “This is not December 24th.”
On the other side of the bustling specialty shop, Stephen Savage hefted a curvaceous, hand-thrown tea mug. He, too, was shopping for his wife.
“She’s a big fan of the local shops,” he said. Unlike Alexander, Savage has been chipping away at his Christmas list since the beginning of December.
“I try to get it done as early as possible,” he said. Savage, a graduate student at the University of Maine, said he enjoys Christmas shopping but is spending “dramatically less” this year than he did last year.
“It’s partly because I went back to school,” he said. But his decreased spending also reflects general concerns about the economy.
“Everyone’s talking about the economy,” he said. “You just start paying more attention to sales and your bank account.”
According to a recent survey conducted by the National Federation of Retailers, the percentage of holiday shoppers who report having completed their gift-buying by the end of the second week in December declined from 53 percent in 2007 to 47.6 percent in 2008 and to 46.7 percent this year.
University of Maine professor of economics Jim McConnon said Saturday that many people put off shopping because they’re busy. But growing rates of procrastination also reflect economic concerns, he said, and what he calls “savvy shopping tactics.”
“People are very mindful of their spending this year,” he said. “They’re focused on their budgets, doing their homework.” Shoppers may wait until the last minute thinking the items they want to buy will go on sale closer to Christmas, he said, especially those who remember last year’s price-slashing sales.
But retailers also have done their homework, McConnon said. They have reduced their inventories and streamlined labor costs, making it less likely that they will need to offer those dramatic last-minute deals.
“It’s not a bad strategy to wait” for a big pre-Christmas sale, he said. But the gift items people want might not be in stock if they wait too long, he added.
Laurie Schweikert, who co-owns The Grasshopper Shop with her husband, Rick, said the Saturday before Christmas is traditionally the store’s best day for sales, although Christmas Eve packs in the biggest crowd. Business has been growing steadily in recent weeks, she said.
“We’re getting busier as time goes on,” she said. “I think generally, people are trying to spend a little less this year, but they are still enticed by seeing that last little thing.”
At Epic Sports, across the street from The Grasshopper Shop, owner Brad Ryder said the holiday shopping season “started off slow but has been revving up.”
“Every day this week has been really busy,” he said Saturday, despite the frigid temperatures that marked most of the week. His best sellers include woolen clothing, snowshoes, cross-country ski sets and strap-on “ice creepers” to prevent slips and injuries.
Stocking stuffers are popular at Epic Sports, too — novelty flashlights, “sporks” (a combination spoon and fork) for camping, lip gloss, Swiss Army knives and small bottles of Dr. Bronner’s biodegradable soaps are perennial favorites, Ryder said.
Down the street at W.J. Lippincott Books, clerk Ginger Graham reviewed her handwritten ledger, recalling the morning’s sales of secondhand and rare books.
“This one was a Christmas present,” she said. “And this one was, too.” Graham said she had to be careful not to reveal too much about the nature of the purchases so as not to spoil the surprise for the recipients, but the gifts included a book of math puzzles for a gifted child and a special find from the religion section. Large-format books of art and photo prints also make popular gifts, she said, as do rare editions.
“But mostly, we are a store in mourning,” Graham said. That’s because Lippincott’s longtime store mascot, a glossy, longhaired, black-and-white cat named Kaspar, died recently of old age and kidney failure.
“He had lots of friends,” Graham said.
Many downtown businesses are keeping expanded hours this week and will be open Christmas Eve.