Retail pessimism dashed away

Michele Vaughan (right) recieves gift-giving advice from an employee at Little Richad’s Toy Store, which recorded strong sales last weekend.

Black Friday and weekend holiday sales were strong throughout the country and Colorado Springs was no exception.

Traffic was heavy at the city’s shopping malls, and several stores reported higher sales this year than last. Independent shops also saw a surge of activity.

Retailers cited several factors they believe created improvements. A strengthening economy, earlier store openings on Black Friday and a strong push for Small Business Saturday, an event to support independent retailers that is now in its second year.

“That’s what did it for us,” said Chris Sondermann, who owns gift boutique Terra Verde at 208 N. Tejon St. “Small Business Saturday made all the difference.”

Small Business Saturday was created by credit card company American Express. The company promised to credit $25 to cardholders who registered for the shopping event online and spent at least $25 with participating small businesses.

“Some of the people I saw were specifically taking advantage of the promotion and some people were just supporting the ethic of shopping at small businesses,” Sondermann said.

American Express spokeswoman Rosa Alfonso said the company has not yet calculated participation numbers, she believes participation was strong this year.

“Last year was about claiming the day,” Alfonso said. “This year is about really empowering the small business owners.”

Sondermann said her weekend’s sales were up 25 percent from last year. And most of that was thanks to gains on Saturday.

Richard Skorman, who owns Poor Richard’s book and toys stores on Tejon Street, said Small Business Saturday was big for him as well and helped sales rise 10 percent this year.

He was grateful for the push toward local shops from American Express. It’s not easy for small businesses, he said, especially when they’re competing against online retailers where shoppers don’t have to pay sales tax.

“This is a good gauge for how the season will be,” Skorman said.

And it’s looking brighter for him and other small businesses.

The surge of business gave Sondermann renewed optimism about the season.

Any prior pessimism was caused by November’s weak sales, which were down. After the banner weekend, the month’s sales were only up 2 percent.

She heard a lot of people say they planned to buy all of their Christmas gifts from local independent merchants this year and she saw more people on the streets downtown.

“Typically, if it’s busy early on, it stays busy,” she said. “We tend to get busier and busier the closer we get to Christmas with the Saturday before being the busiest.”

That’s pretty common for retailers throughout the country, according to the National Retail Federation. The busiest day of the holiday shopping season is typically the Saturday before Christmas, with Christmas Eve following close behind.

“It will be interesting to see what happens this year,” said Jill Lais, marketing director for The Citadel Mall. “Christmas Eve falls on a Saturday this year.”

The Citadel Mall had heavier traffic this shopping holiday than it had last year, Lais said. That’s based on a survey of some of her store owners who said sales and traffic were up anywhere from 2 to 30 percent.

The mall, which has suffered several major vacancies in anchor locations in recent years, has a seasonal toy store Toyzam, that is drawing families.

A handful of the mall’s large retailers opened at midnight on Thanksgiving and many of them credited the better numbers to the longer hours, Lais said.

Chapel Hills Mall spokeswoman Jenny Hillard said her sales and traffic numbers were up as well.

The mall handed 500 shoppers bags filled with gift cards ranging from $10 to $250.

Shop owners synchronized their openings, Hillard said.

Hillard said the mall does not collect numbers from store owners, but she heard from many who said the earlier opening time made a difference.

The Promenade Shops at Briargate shared the same type of success story.

“People were complaining that there wasn’t enough parking,” said General Manager Jennifer Crowley. “That’s always music to my ears.”

She said Williams-Sonoma’s Black Friday sales were up almost 5 percent this year and Cold Water Creek saw a gain of more than 11 percent.

The earliest stores to open at the Promenade shops didn’t unlock their doors until 4 a.m. Most merchants didn’t open until 8 a.m.

Crowley said she’s optimistic about this holiday season.

“In the eight-year history of the center, the first time that Black Friday wasn’t better than the one before was 2008,” she said. “And 2008 and 2009 were really tough years. 2010 was significantly better than 2009.”

And preliminary numbers for 2011 look promising, she said.