By MAX GARLAND
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Despite recent U.S. economic growth and a low unemployment rate, retail sales this holiday season indicate customers aren’t quite confident enough to go on a spending spree just yet.
The U.S. Commerce Department said last week that seasonally adjusted retail sales rose just 0.1 percent in November, with reduced spending at department stores and auto dealers.
It’s not just retail giants that are taking a hit from the underwhelming sales numbers. Outside of Small Business Saturday, locally owned stores in Charleston haven’t seen a rush of shoppers, either.
“It’s been awful,” said Gina Puzzuoli, the owner of Stray Dog Antiques, on Hale Street. “I’ve been here for nine years, and this might be the worst December I’ve ever had.”
Small business owners have less margin for error than the big-box stores, as Puzzuoli said about 25 percent of her sales comes during the holiday season.
Although Puzzuoli had the harshest assessment of holiday business, other local owners haven’t been too confident in their sales numbers, either.
“Things are down a bit,” said Jerry Strick, owner of Kid Country Toys, which has locations at the Bridge Road Shops and the Charleston Town Center mall. “We usually see an uptick during the holidays but, every year, it gets tougher.”
Strick, who purchased the business when it was called Toy Magic, in 1979, said West Virginia’s economy has taken a greater hit than the rest of the country because of the decline of the coal industry, meaning less money is going toward Christmas gifts. A report recently released by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, a nonprofit research group, said the state trails most others in economy and personal income.
For his business specifically, though, Strick said children are becoming more interested in electronics, rather than the toys his business sells. A similar business, the Fountain Hobby Center, which sold toys and crafts on Charleston’s West Side for decades, closed earlier this year.
Strick said potential customers are increasingly shopping more online, and Kid Country Toys doesn’t sell online because of low markup costs and the maintenance needed to maintain it.
“You have to pay search engines to compete online, and that’s something the big stores can do,” Strick said. “We can’t.”
Chuck Hamsher, co-owner of The Purple Moon, on Quarrier Street, said he’s seen “a little uptick,” but business has been good, as opposed to great.
“I think people have been very careful with their money,” he said.
Dale Haynes, a manager at Charleston Department Store, said business hasn’t been spectacular but he wasn’t expecting a drastic holiday increase in sales, anyway. He has seen West Virginia University bowl game shirts “fly off the shelves” and the comeback of UGG shoes, which has helped the clothing and footwear outlet.
But Haynes isn’t surprised with the underwhelming forecasts of other locally owned stores. He said West Virginia’s declining population makes it more difficult for long-established businesses to adjust to less traffic, a problem most other states couldn’t fathom.
A newer business at the Bridge Road Shops had better news to report than its older counterparts. Eclectics, which opened in 2015, has had more daily sales during the holidays, as compared to last year, according to manager Jesse Thomas. She said Small Business Saturday and Black Friday sales were strong for the gift store, particularly with locally made items.
Puzzuoli said much of the traffic downtown Charleston stores used to get during the holidays has moved to the Bridge Road businesses. She said the main driver for that is the outdated downtown parking system and its unclear guidelines. The city has been evaluating its parking conditions in recent months. Poor road conditions haven’t helped, either.
“People don’t want to come and shop where they can’t find parking,” she said
The Commerce Department’s data and a recent release from the National Retail Federation indicate that people are out shopping, but may be spending less than expected. The federation said 3 million more consumers shopped over Thanksgiving weekend in 2016, compared to 2015. It said in another report that Dec. 17, known as Super Saturday, had an estimated draw of 156 million consumers, more than what the Thanksgiving weekend saw.
Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist at the National Retail Federation, said other measurements in the Commerce Department’s report indicate holiday sales, at least nationally, aren’t as concerning as they appear. He pointed out that retail sales since October is up 3.6 percent, compared to last year, a statistic he said gives a more comprehensive view of how business is doing, as opposed to just one month.
However, Kleinhenz added that some parts of the country still might not have recovered fully from the most recent recession and price deflation could be having a negative effect on sales numbers nationwide.
“I think it’s a lack of pricing, not demand,” Kleinhenz said of retailers’ holiday sales.
There is still a chance businesses could finish the season strong. Thomas said Eclectics’ items are a popular last-minute gift for locals, and Hamsher said people often come to The Purple Moon after Christmas to pick out new home decor.
Lisa McCracken, marketing director at the Charleston Town Center, said the mall sees holiday shoppers even on Christmas Eve.
“A lot of people only have that short amount of time off, and they still have to buy for their kids,” she said.
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