Clovis News

Is this holiday a boom or bust for Valley retailers?

If stores like Macy's and Target were the only indicator, retailers would be having a wonderful holiday sales season.

November chain-store sales were better than expected. Black Friday drew more shoppers than last year. And organizations that track retail sales have hiked their holiday sales forecasts upward.

But are mom-and-pop retailers in the Valley sharing in the Christmas cheer?

Yes and no.

Some longtime Fresno-area retailers are reporting booming sales.

But for others -- particularly new businesses -- the picture is more muddy. Some say it's too soon to tell how the holiday will go. Others say sales are down. And experts say many small retailers are handicapped by smaller advertising budgets and the county's 15.7% unemployment rate.

"It's a mixed bag," said Clovis Chamber of Commerce CEO Mark Blackney. "It depends on who you talk to."

Although many retailers tell him sales are better this year, many also say it's too early to tell, he said.

Every year about this time, stores go through a lull as shoppers take a break after the mad rush of Black Friday shopping, he said.

But that lull was preceded by a firestorm at chain stores in November. Sales at 31 chains nationwide were up 5.4% compared to the same time last year, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

About 212 million people shopped on Black Friday weekend -- nearly 9% more than last year, according to the National Retail Federation.

Those numbers and other positive indicators led to both organizations revising forecasts upward for the amount of money they expect consumers to spend over the holiday season. Overall, Fresno State marketing professor Bill Rice said he expects locally owned retailers will see greater sales this season than they did last year.

Locally owned Horn Photo is already seeing an increase. Sales are up 12% at the store in the Villaggio shopping center on north Blackstone Avenue.

Owner Stan Grosz said the store is more competitive with big-box retailers this year. He said Horn Photo's main camera supplier, Canon, has aggressively lowered its prices, enabling the store to offer lower prices.

"They're doing a little more to help small independent chains compete," he said.

Sales at Fresno's two Sierra Nut House locations are thriving too, said owner JoAnn Sorrenti.

"We're up, so we're happy," she said. "We've known for several months that this [year] is going to be better."

Corporate sales -- such as gift baskets from orthodontists thanking dentists for patient referrals -- are rebounding, she said. The rise in sales has led Sierra Nut House to hire four or five extra workers beyond its already beefed-up holiday staffing.

Owners of the Sierra Nut House and Horn Photo said bumping up their spending on advertising this year is also helping to drive sales.

And that may be a key reason other retailers aren't doing as well, Rice said. Some cut back on their marketing and advertising while trying to cut costs -- and are now paying for it, he said.

"If they have done any kind of marketing, if they have done anything to draw people in, they're at or above where they were last year," he said. "If they haven't, they're probably below where they were last year."

Retailers that have been in business for many years also have an edge on companies that are new because customers are more familiar with longtime stores, Blackney said.

And the economy is still putting a damper on spending. With the Valley's unemployment rate well above the state average, families here are likely to spend less than those living where the economy is healthier, Rice said.

My Girl, in its second year at Fashion Fair mall, is feeling the strain of the economy, said co-owner Joy Houlihan.

Sales at the shop, which sells hair accessories and other items geared toward girls, are lower than they were last year, she said.

Although foot traffic is up, shoppers are still cautious when parting with their money, she said.

"We chalk it up to the economy," Houlihan said. "I think people are still watching what they're buying."

And for some retailers, it's simply too early to tell how the season will go.

Sales are about even with last year so far at Bear Creek Gifts and Cabin Decor, said Larry Grossi, who has owned the store for 12 years with his wife, Pat.

More customers are coming through the store, but the amount they're spending per transaction is slightly down, he said.

He expects business will pick up as shoppers realize they don't have much time left. "People are waiting till about the last week and a half," he said. "It should start really kicking about Thursday or Friday this week."