Sarasota-area cash registers ringing loudly
Kevin McQuaid / Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Shoppers are flooding Southwest Florida stores in the days leading up to Christmas, providing a much needed — and hoped for — boost to area retailers.
At the SuperTarget off University Parkway late Wednesday morning, holiday buyers packed aisles to sift through merchandise, seek bargains and scratch a few more items off gift lists. At least a few on-sale and seasonal items were sold out.
“I’m finishing today,” said Laura VanArsdall, outside the SuperTarget with her active 2-year-old son, Nicholas. “I haven’t found the lines too bad so far.”
Tejas Shah, a SuperTarget executive team leader, said Wednesday’s crowds were consistent with those of the past few weeks at the store, part of Benderson Development Co.’s University Town Center.
“Every single day has been busy,” said Shah, who oversees the clothing and jewelry departments. “Pretty much the entire month of December, the traffic has been good.”
Spurred on by cool yet sunny weather — far nicer than in much of the nation — residents and visitors alike also flocked to Sarasota Square Mall, which was even more crowded.
There, thousands of browsers and customers — Aida Bajramovic was among them — mingled around midday and made final holiday purchases.
“It’s crazy in there,” Bajramovic said outside the Westfield shopping hub.
She had spent part of the morning shopping for her boyfriend, spending “slightly more” than last year.
“The economy’s picking up a little bit, but I still have to stay on budget,” Bajramovic said.
Retail watchers contend December buying is up nationwide as well, with sales for the week that ended Dec. 18 gaining 4.2 percent over the same period in 2009, according to a weekly survey by International Council of Shopping Centers and the Goldman Sachs Group Inc.
For the week, overall retail sales rose a dramatic 1.7 percent from the week before, fueled by a Saturday surge that analysts are describing as “one of the busiest shopping days of the year.”
“Now that we are down to the wire, consumers have stepped up their shopping pace, as well as their purchases,” ICSC Chief Economist Michael Niemira said.
“All in all, retail shopping trends are shaping up to be very favorable for holiday sales, as well as December sales performance, for retailers,” Niemira added.
Back in November, the ICSC, the National Retail Federation and its Florida affiliate all predicted this year would be the strongest for holiday shopping since 2006, the year before the longest economic recession since the Great Depression began. Sales are expected to be up anywhere from 3.5 percent to more than 5 percent over 2009, the groups say.
Not every retail analyst believes the supposed sales surge will be as robust as anticipated, or that it is sustainable.
Jeff Green, who heads an Arizona retail consulting firm and has worked in Southwest Florida, predicts sales this December will be up a more modest 2 percent to 4 percent from a year ago.
“Yes, at the end of the month I think we will have done better than 2009, but I wouldn’t say the results will be tremendous,” Green said. “For retail, it won’t come back fully until the economy truly comes back, and employment truly comes back.”
Still, Green and other experts marvel at the increased level of self-gifting this season — a phenomenon they contend has pushed sales ahead of last year.
“The biggest surprise of the whole season for me has been the number of people who are once again buying for themselves, especially in apparel,” Green said Wednesday. “I think it’s a combination of pent-up demand and that products have reached a price point that just made too much sense to consumers.”
SuperTarget’s Shah agreed that apparel and electronics have been among the most popular items this season.
Perhaps even more heartening for retailers is the notion that consumers’ holiday shopping may not yet be done. Earlier this week, an ICSC-Goldman Sachs survey predicted that more than 23 million people 16 years and older plan to shop Friday, Dec. 24.
In response, a bevy of area merchants have staked extended Christmas Eve hours.
Best Buy intends to open at 7 a.m. Friday and close at 5 p.m. The University Park SuperTarget will open at 7 a.m. and stay open until 7 p.m.
“That day should be very busy, based on last year,” Shah said.
Some retailers are also choosing to stick to more traditional methods to lure shoppers in the final days leading to Christmas.
Target, for instance, is offering electronics like the Garmin navigator and Apple iPod Touch at discounts, along with toys and clothing on sale.
Borders Books and Music is among the retailers featuring a major sale, while Sports Authority hopes to tempt shoppers with sales prices and 99-cent shipping for online purchases this week.