Sunday, January 11, 2009

Retailers Look Back on Holiday Season

Days before Christmas saved some Long Beach business owners

By Joseph Kellard

Fledgling retailers in Long Beach reported mixed results for a holiday shopping season marked by nationwide stores offering steep discounts, some as high as 75 percent off, while the economy sank further into a recession.

Some business owners were concerned as they struggled with poor sales and scrambled to adjust, while others told of a December that started slow but picked up just before Christmas.

“Basically what happened to me is that people started to shop much,much later, when they came under the gun to start shopping,” said Melissa Barnett, owner of Lil' Towhead, a children's boutique store on E. Park Avenue.

Thanks to this last push, Barnett said, her holiday season went better than expected.Of course, it doesn't hurt that Barnett's boutique sells ever-popular children's clothes and toys, particularly Melissa & Doug, a brand of wooden “learning” toys — puzzles, arts and crafts and blocks. In December, Barnett sold mostly accessories, such as scarves and gloves, as well as T-shirts and sticker books, all for $30 or less.

“I was stocking toys like every three days; they did really well for me,” she said.

Michael Muratore, co-owner of Rose & Eye, a West End boutique where all clothes are under $100, said business was steady throughout the holiday shopping season, but things took a turn for the better later on. “The last eight days were very, very strong days,” he said about the week before Christmas.

With just 27 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, five fewer than in 2007, Muratore predicted a rush late in the shopping season.

“I thought that would make a huge difference and push people to shop later,” he said, explaining that he worked at department stores for 20 years before opening his boutique in March 2007.

Another factor may have been the coupons for 20 to 50 percent off that he e-mailed to loyal customers 10 days before Christmas. Muratore also said he believes the reeling economy worked to his advantage. He expected shoppers to turn away from the mall stores selling T-shirts for $175 and venture into stores like his, where he sells similar styles for an average of $40. From Black Friday to Christmas, Rose & Eye sold mostly key items, from wrap sweaters to party dresses, he said.

At Frock, a women's clothing store across the street from Muratore’s shop on West Beech Street, owner Stephanie Thornton said the last couple of weeks in December were better than the first weeks.

“And I have to say that January is starting out a lot better than December,” Thornton added. “ ... Maybe it's that people who didn't get what they wanted for Christmas are coming out and buying it for themselves now.”

While Thornton's store highlights cocktail dresses for about $300, which she cut by 20 percent, Gracia dresses at $100 or less, and formal gowns ranging from $200 to $400, she said she sold lots of jewelry, which ranges from $15 bracelets to $200 designer gold-plate necklaces, as well as sweaters, scarves and other accessories. While Thornton, who opened her store in November 2007, began to bring in less expensive products before the holiday season kicked off, other retailers are only now taking this tack.

“I bought merchandise I had always bought, and somehow it isn't working,” said Susan Gelfand, owner of Josef ~ Rose, an East Park Avenue boutique specializing in fine handbags, belts and wallets.

Gelfand, however, is among the newest retailers in Long Beach, having set up shop late last summer. For 16 years, Gelfand, a Lawrence resident, operated her store in Deal, N.J., a heavily Sephardic Jewish community, where her clientele included people from surrounding towns wealthy enough to own horses.

“This is the first time I had what you would call a Christmas season,” she said. “Let's just say it was different.”

Gelfand said she has now learned to offer a more diverse price range, and she started the New Year by attending a trade show at the Javits Center to buy newer wares. She bought more non-leather bags that start at $40 than she stocked in her New Jersey store. And while most of her (non knock-off) designer bags, which include Isabella Fiore, Lockheart and Francesco Biasia, go as high as $700, most are in the $300 to $400 range.

Gelfand's neighbor, Roz Sterling, owner of Phoebe's, which specializes in handbags that sell for $50 to $300 and shoes that go for $40 to $300, said that after a rough holiday season, she plans to readjust her inventory by carrying more accessories and some novelty clothing items like tank tops and leggings. “I'm definitely carrying more pick-me-ups just to get people in the store,” Sterling said. “Hopefully that will be enough.”

Sterling started the holiday season by reducing virtually all her merchandise to half price, but since last September, business has remained way down from when she first opened in July 2007.

“It's definitely scary times,” she said. “We're 'on sale' like everyone else in the world and we're just plugging along. Hopefully there will be a change in the economy and in the consumer mindset. If consumers aren't spending money, nothing else matters.”

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