June 19, 2018
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Retailers expect ‘barn burner’ of a holiday shopping weekend as last-minute shoppers come out

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
People walk to and from shops near the Bangor Mall this week. Only a handful of shopping days are left until Christmas.
By Whit Richardson, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — Maine’s retailers are looking forward to a weekend of brisk shopping due to a shortened holiday shopping season, last weekend’s snowstorm and the typical shoppers who wait until the last minute to begin the hunt for gifts.

“We’re really optimistic and pretty confident that this weekend is going to be a barn burner,” James Gerety, manager of the Bangor Mall, told the Bangor Daily News.

While the last weekend before Christmas is always a lucrative stretch for retailers, this weekend is expected to be particularly busy because there are fewer shopping days this year between Thanksgiving — which fell on Nov. 28 compared with Nov. 22 last year — and Christmas.

“It’s going to be brisk shopping all weekend long,” Gerety said. “Because we’ve got some procrastinators out there and a shorter season, that translates into higher volume and more sales.”

Topher Mallory, CEO of Mexicali Blues, which has retail locations in Bangor, Portland, Newcastle, Raymond and Freeport, said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the coming weekend.

“I would hope to see an increase [in sales] given it’s a shorter season,” he said.

Signs of a recovering economy also are raising expectations for a strong holiday season.

“The economy is definitely better,” said Kip Stone, owner of Cool As A Moose, which sells Maine-themed products at retail stores in Portland, Bar Harbor, Brunswick and Freeport. “Everybody is in a more upbeat mood.”

The day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday, which offers retailers a good harbinger for what’s to come, kicked off the shopping season and was a big success at the Bangor Mall, Gerety said.

“We look at Black Friday as the kickoff. Black Friday is arguably one of the top one or two busiest days of the year, and this year we had a very strong Black Friday. It certainly exceeded last year in terms of traffic and anecdotally our tenants were saying we blew our numbers away,” Gerety said. “To me, that was a key that perhaps the customers were willing to spend money, come out and shop early and we’d continue to see them through the holiday season.”

Curtis Picard, executive director of the Retail Association of Maine, is also predicting a strong season.

“It’s just anecdotal at this point, but I’ve heard good things from members,” he said. “People seem to be spending not only for others but for themselves. It’s called self-shopping and it’s a sign of [an] improving economy.”

The expectation of Maine’s retailers is matched on the national level. The National Retail Federation is projecting total U.S. sales in the months of November and December to marginally increase 3.9 percent to $602.1 billion.

The “buy local” movement is also growing strong, exhibited by efforts such as Plaid Friday in Bangor and Small Business Saturday promotions throughout the state.

“It’s having some effect,” Picard said. “We’ve heard that Small Business Saturday has really taken on a life of its own.”

Mallory at Mexicali Blues said shoppers seem to be more cognizant of the buy-local movement and supporting small businesses.

“It’s unlikely we’ll break any sales record because of the shortened season, but what we will do is offer shoppers a unique experience,” Mallory said. “That’s our only advantage as a small business. We’re not going to beat big-box stores on price, but what we are going to provide is something unique and authentic and an experience I don’t think you can find at a big-box store.”

While competition from big-box stores still poses a challenge, it’s not the biggest threat to locally owned businesses, according to Picard at the Retail Association of Maine. That dubious honor goes to the Internet — more specifically, online retailers such as Amazon.com. Picard said the convenience of shopping in your pajamas and the ability to avoid sales tax is “just too tempting for many,” which is why he’s lobbied for laws that would force online retailers to collect sales tax.

“The battle of online shopping is only going to be level when they collect and remit sales taxes the way brick-and-mortar stores do,” Picard said. “I quipped recently that Amazon can develop a drone to do same-day delivery, but they claim it’s too hard to figure sales taxes on orders?”

While shopping online may attract the well-organized holiday shopper, it does nothing for the procrastinator who needs to do some last-minute shopping (that is, until Amazon launches same-day delivery by drone).

For now the brick-and-mortar retailers still have the upper hand when it comes to the last weekend before Christmas. And with last weekend’s snowstorm likely forcing some people to postpone their shopping, retailers are bracing for the crowds.

“It’s going to be big,” said Stone of Cool As A Moose. “The snowstorm kept me from going shopping, so I’ll be joining everyone out there last minute trying to cover the bases.”

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