Sunday, May 18, 2008

Business Elves Work Overtime

For some stores, hours and sales double or more

By Joseph Kellard

It’s lunchtime on the Wednesday thirteen days before Christmas, and Joe Dee has several undecorated wreaths spread out on a workstation table at Dee’s Nursery in Oceanside. They are among the thousands of wreaths and garlands, hundreds of them custom ordered, that Dee estimates he and his staff are making before the big holiday.

The days between Thanksgiving and Christmas are the nursery’s second busiest time of year, rivaled only by the May planting season, but this is more hectic because Dee and his family’s business face a definite deadline: Dec. 25.

“I would say it’s definitely crazier," said Dee, who opens the store every day at 8 a.m. and closes it by 10 p.m. during the Christmas and holiday season. "The Christmas business is compacted more into the shorter time period. We do most of our Christmas business in three weeks, as opposed to six to eight weeks in springtime."

During the Christmas and holiday season, Dee’s, a family-owned, decades-old nursery that is a virtual Oceanside institution on Atlantic Avenue, is nevertheless relatively no busier than many other businesses, particularly those that create and customize everything from decorations to presents, during this time of year.

Sami Saatchi, owner of SVS Fine Jewelry on Long Beach Road in Oceanside, gets an influx of orders during late November and December, particularly for custom rings, since many couples typically get engaged around the holidays.

During these months, Saatchi can be found cutting his diamonds into the night, often a few hours past his usual 6 p.m. closing time. Normally, a custom job can take about four to six weeks. During this time, Saatchi can manage to make a custom ring in a week and a half. "It gets crazy," Saatchi said, laughing and echoing Dee’s sentiments.

On the Wednesday after Black Friday, Saatchi said that in the next three weeks, due to time constraints, he will probably create some 20 custom pieces before Christmas. He starts by putting the customer’s specific drawing to a computer program that allows him to create a virtual rendition on the flat screen on his shop’s wall. SVS is among more than a dozen jewelry stores in and around Oceanside, including his father’s shop in Island Park, but Saatchi believes that providing such technology gives him an edge over them. And a smaller, family store like his has a different advantage over the likes of Zales or Kay Jewelers.

"Jewelry, after all, is used to celebrate all the special moments in our lives," Saatchi said, "and you want to know who it’s coming from and you want to make it that personal … We get to know our customers and it becomes a lot more personal experience. It really [boils] down to, ‘Who has done the right thing by someone I know.’"

Arlene Toback, owner of Chapter One Books in the T.J. Maxx shopping center on Long Beach Road, said that while regular customers still come to her store during the holidays, she gets many unfamiliar faces that can effectively triple her business. "Along with summer, it’s my best time," Toback said.

Not a business that creates merchandise like a nursery or jewelry store, Chapter One must otherwise emphasize customer service. And even though Toback has few competitors in the area, she nevertheless must compete with the distant chain stores such as Barnes & Noble and Border’s near Roosevelt Field Mall — not to mention customers who come to her store, find a book they want, but order a cheaper copy on

"It’s a tough thing and I can’t compete with that," Toback admits. She looks, instead, to create a staff that knows the books her customers typically read. "I want to be able to talk to my customers about the books we’re selling," said Toback, who reads everything from mysteries to book club materials to children’s books.

Toback keeps abreast of the book world by reading the New York Times Sunday Book Review and Publishers Weekly, as well as taking suggestions from her kids, ages 10, 14 and 17. During the Christmas season, Toback said she likes to educate herself on the books that people tend to buy more during this time.

Chapter One also has a one-day book-delivery service to compete with. "If a person comes in for a book, and if my distributor in New Jersey or New York has it in stock, I can pretty much have it for them the next day," Toback said.

While her store is busy during the Black Friday weekend after Thanksgiving, when business typically doubles, sales can triple as Christmas nears. "Those last two and a half weeks before Christmas is when I really have many shoppers," Toback said.

At Dee’s, the weekend after Thanksgiving, most customers come in for indoor and outdoor decorations, to get started on creating some Christmas spirit around their homes.

As Dee was creating his wreaths last week, a sales representative dropped by, opening his large binder filled with holiday products to keep Dee’s shelves stocked.

"Tom, do you have those white swags left?" Dee said to the sales representative. "I have a woman who started decorating her house, didn’t have enough, and when she came back I was all out."

On the third weekend and the week leading up to Dec. 25, the live merchandise, from poinsettias to evergreen trees, moves the most.

The Dee’s own tree farm in Maine keeps the nursery self-sufficient with live Christmas trees. But that’s not always the case with the fresh cut flowers in the nursery’s floral department. Dee’s hires about 10 percent more staff during December, mostly to sell trees and to make the floral arrangements, table centerpieces and fruit and gourmet baskets that comprise the shop’s most popular items.

"Because they are perishable, these items are usually one of the last thoughts people have," said Steve Dee, Joe’s older brother, who sits at a computer in the floral department Googling information on fir trees. "So five or six days before the holidays is the busiest time back here."

While Dee’s tries to give customers a choice of up to a dozen different centerpieces or bouquets to distinguish the nursery from the chain florists, some customers desire unique flowers – whether specific to a particular region, such as Holland, or that have exotic colors. But days before Christmas, these are not always easy to get from a local wholesaler, Steve said.

"It does get pretty frantic," he said, "and sometimes people who want something special, they do it the day before. So," he said with a grin, as if talking to his customers, "remember to order early."

Joseph Kellard is a journalist and columnist living in New York.

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