Although the jingle of holiday sales rang more loudly for some retailers than others, a sampling of merchants in Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Vineyard Haven reported a successful season, as they braced for what they hoped would be a final pre-Christmas shopping blitz last weekend.
Competing with the lure of off-Island discount stores and online shopping, several local retailers said that sales got off to a slow start in December, picking up in the last few weeks. With the equivalent of a three-day shopping weekend before Christmas this year and the arrival of visitors and seasonal homeowners on-Island, many merchants said they hoped to get one last blast of holiday business.
Tisbury merchants reported yesterday that they received an early Christmas present on Dec. 24, with a surge of shoppers boosting sales. At Cumberland Farms, the staff got more than they bargained for, handling an unexpected volume of customers desperate for last-minute ingredients and food items after the Stop and Shop supermarket closed at 6 pm.
Slow to start
"It's been great - better than last year," said April Levandowski, in between helping customers on Sunday afternoon at Le Roux at Home on Tisbury's Main Street. As the store's co-owner with her husband Michael, Ms. Levandowski said she has learned from past experience that the Island's holiday shopping season usually starts up about 10 days before Christmas.
A few doors down the street at Rainy Day, manager Helen MacLeod narrowed it down even more. "This year, I personally think that people are just late bloomers and slow to go," she said. "Friday hit, and they realized they had about four days left - and they all came in."
This is the first Christmas season for Fred Natusch and Jennifer Oliver, who opened their gift shop Imagine in Vineyard Haven last May. The shop is tucked off Union Street behind the Tisbury police department.
"We're happy with the traffic," Mr. Natusch said. "A lot of people are excited about the store, coming in and telling us they've heard about it from other friends. It's a little bit of a challenge to find us, but the people who have are coming in to do all their shopping."
Despite the success reported by some of their Main Street neighbors, Bunch of Grapes bookstore owner Jon Nelson and Bowl and Board owner Garry Medders agreed that their holiday business had been down before the Dec. 24 burst.
Around 3 pm last Sunday, Bunch of Grapes hummed with activity, with shoppers treated to eggnog served by Mr. Nelson's wife Teresa, as Karen Blake and Clark Maffitt rang up sales. "It's like August, only people are nicer," Mr. Maffitt said with a smile."
From Mr. Nelson's perspective, a surge in holiday sales would be most welcome. The bookstore's holiday revenues are down by about 30 percent this year, he noted. Checking records from last year, he said that the same week in December was up by more than 507 transactions.
Mr. Nelson said independently owned bookstores such as his have suffered greatly from competition from big box stores, online discount booksellers, and a growing number of other retailers that sell books, including gift stores and grocery stores.
"Every dollar someone spends off this Island stays off-Island," Mr. Nelson said. "I need this month to make it to June. If you want to buy a book here in February, then you need to buy it from me today."
Mr. Nelson, who serves as president of the Tisbury Business Association (TBA), said he recently applied for a grant to launch a "shop local campaign," which he hopes to collaborate on with the Oak Bluffs board of trade.
On to Oak Bluffs
At Sanctuary gift shop on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs, owner Frank Imbimbo said although the Christmas season has been a little quieter overall, business definitely was picking up. "It's a whole different pace than in the summertime," Mr. Imbimbo said. "The wonderful thing is the locals. It's nice to see familiar faces. It's been great for us, as it has been every year at this time."
Across the street, the Secret Garden gift shop has been very busy for the last two weeks, according to owner Sharon Kelly, contacted at her other gift shop in Avon, Conn., last Friday. "Every year is a new adventure, that's all I can say," Ms. Kelly said. "Thanks to the support of local shoppers, she added, "It looks as if we're going to be ahead for the month of December."
However, unlike some of the other Island stores, Ms. Kelly said that Christmas business is not as crucial to her overall business here. "We get the equivalent of what would be Christmas volume for some businesses in the summer," Ms. Kelly said. "If we have a good summer, that determines whether we've had a good year."
The Edgartown experience
At Donaroma's Nursery in Edgartown, around 11 am on Sunday morning, the staff was experiencing a brief and welcome lull, gearing up for a busy day ahead. Since kicking off the holiday season on Dec. 7, with an "Evening of Enchantment," featuring specially decorated trees, food, drink, and entertainment, Donaroma's has been very busy, all of the staff agreed.
"Overall, it's gone well, and business has been pretty steady," said Leslie Deal, senior floral designer, adding that ornaments have been a tremendous seller as usual.
Senior retail sales associate Ruth Meyer said the store had been restocked four or five times, and there was no backup left. Floral manager Roger Maxfield and the design team kept up with a steady flow of custom orders for floral arrangements.
Although customers' buying patterns have been different this year, Ms. Deal said she thinks holiday sales are close to last year's. Although outside sales were a little slower this year, with fewer bigger trees and wreaths sold initially, nursery retail sales associate Lori Machado said tree sales has picked up again over the weekend, as more people arrived on Island.
Just down the road at the Triangle, Trader Fred's owner Fred Mascolo said his business is booming, better than last year when warm weather in December hurt sales of winter clothing and accessories. Mr. Mascolo described his customers as coming into the store over the weekend in "waves," and employee Pete Tomlinson said warm winter socks were the big seller.
Across the parking lot from Trader Fred's at North Star, a Brazilian market and gift store, many customers stopped in on Sunday morning to purchase the store's most popular Christmas items, gift baskets filled with chocolates, treats, and foods from Brazil. Owner Elio Silva said the store had been very busy over the previous few days, and business has been better than expected for the season. "Most of the stuff we bought, we've sold, and by tomorrow, we'll be about out of our holiday stuff," he said.
When asked about Christmas celebrations in Brazil, Mr. Silva, who is from Minas Gerais, said, "Take out the snow, and there is very little difference." Brazilians put up artificial Christmas trees and exchange "Secret Santa" presents at work before Christmas and family presents at home on Christmas Day, he said. Many Brazilians attend church services on Christmas Eve, followed by a big meal at midnight. Turkey is a traditional Christmas meal, along with barbequed meats.
To spend or not to spend
In talking about their holiday revenues, some retailers attributed customers' more conservative spending this year to uncertainty about the economy and higher costs of living. Both Mr. Nelson and Bowl and Board owner Garry Medders, who also said his business is down somewhat this year, attributed the slump in part to conservative spending due to their customers' uncertainty about the economy and higher costs of living.
"People are filling up their oil tanks, and prices are up," said Mr. Medders. "We had a cold snap in December, and many people just paid their bills. It makes them think twice about what they're spending."
Mr. Nelson agreed: "Compared to last year, it's been colder. People are looking at $1,000, maybe $2,000 for their heating oil, and they're thinking about holding onto their money."
In talking with Rainy Day customers about their shopping patterns this season, Ms. MacLeod said, "Some people said they did some Internet buying, and a lot of others said they were happy to shop locally and support local businesses, and that they tried to stay away from malls. So, it was a combination of people who did Internet buying and Island buying for us."
As the owner of Secret Garden since 1981, Ms. Kelly said she notices that local business goes up as Christmas approaches and Vineyarders run out of time for off-Island shopping trips or have to cancel them due to bad weather.
She and several of her fellow retailers agreed that adapting their stores' merchandise to changes in the Island market and clientele presents one of their biggest challenges.
"You have to change your formula," Ms. Kelly said. "Our store has changed so much over the years. We try and listen to what people are looking for when they come in, and stock what they want to buy."
As the owner of the Island's longest operating Brazilian specialty store for 12 years, Mr. Silva said he has changed his inventory many times in response to changes in the numbers of his customers and their needs. From what he has observed, Mr. Silva said there are fewer Brazilians living on Martha's Vineyard than a few years ago. Consequently, he has changed his store somewhat, adding cell phones and other merchandise to attract customers of other nationalities, as well. "I'm trying to adapt to customers when they come in, by finding out what they buy at home and what they want to buy here," Mr. Silva said.
At Trader Fred's, however, despite the fact that changing merchandise is his modus operandi, Mr. Mascolo acknowledges that keeping a business going year-round on Martha's Vineyard is very difficult. After 28 years, he said, "We're very appreciative of our customers. When you do business in the winter, it's personal. It's a real compliment for people to come in and shop in your store."
In addition to a welcome upswing in his business on Dec. 24, Mr. Medders said he hopes that the week ahead will be a strong one at Bowl and Board for post-holiday shopping. "It's the last big week until July," he said. "But you never know. It becomes weather-dependent. If there's a nice stretch, people will stay on the Island. Otherwise, they'll head home early."