Retailers report strong season

Area stores claim flurry of last-minute shoppers boosts sales

Posted: Wednesday, December 27, 2000

While many retailers nationwide say holiday sales fell short of expectations, the story is different on the central Kenai Peninsula.

"We had a really good holiday season," said Terry Rahlfs, director of Fred Meyer in Soldotna.

Lower 48 retailers are feeling the pinch of increasing competition, he said.

"I think the sales pie is getting sliced into smaller and smaller pieces," he said.

However, the peninsula has not seen the same growth in competition. In fact, Rahlfs said, peninsula retailers are offering a greater variety, and that has helped stem the loss of shopping dollars to Anchorage.

"More and more people are buying locally," he said. "Our goal is to do things so well that shoppers will stay and buy here."

Nationwide, the slowing economy, harsh winter weather and high energy prices have hurt holiday sales. Federal Express and United Parcel Service recently lowered their earnings forecasts due to soft consumer spending. Wal-Mart said its holiday sales fell below projections.

At the Soldotna Fred Meyer, though, sales were up, Rahlfs said.

Jim Crist, manager of the Big Kmart in Kenai, also reported a rise in holiday sales.

Crist said swings in the national economy generally have less effect on rural areas than large metropolitan areas. Employment is less volatile in rural areas, he said, and rural areas are not as affected by migrations of transient workers.

"The biggest issue we had was not having any snow," Crist said. "That affects certain activities -- your sleds, your skates. When you have snow, people are more interested in those activities."

Kathleen Logan, owner of Birch Tree Gallery in Soldotna, said the Christmas shopping rush began late with this year's lack of snow.

"I think people were very late getting into the buying-for-Christmas mood," she said. " I saw a lot of late shoppers this year. I saw a lot of people coming in four or five days before Christmas that were just getting started -- and they weren't all men."

Logan said she had fewer early orders for mail-away gifts. Customers also seemed to be buying more less-expensive gifts, she said. But overall, Christmas sales were good.

"It went pretty well. It was pretty much the same as other years," she said.

Liz Schmitt, owner of Northcountry Fair in Soldotna, made similar comments.

"We did really good, and I think it's just because we're a specialty shop," she said. "We were as busy as last Christmas, but not busier."

Schmitt said the holiday shoppers started slow with the lack of wintry weather, but eventually turned out in force. Last year, she said, heavy snow the week before Christmas kept shoppers at home for several days. This year, despite the ice, shoppers were out in force.

However, while Christmas Eve usually is her busiest shopping day, this year it came on a Sunday and was quiet.

"Saturday was our mad-house day," she said.

The rush at Fred Meyer also came Saturday, Rahlfs said.

"Traditionally, Christmas Eve is a big day, but it was kind of slow," he said. "Maybe, because it was on a Sunday, people went to church and visited friends. Saturday was a big day."

Rahlfs said clothing sold well, this year, particularly fleece vests and pullovers.

"In home electronics, DVDs were a hot category, and now that the players are becoming more common, the movies are selling a lot better," he said.

The big-ticket items, such as high-end televisions, did not sell as quickly as expected, he said, but smaller items such as boom boxes and personal CD players moved fast.

Sleds sold well, though not as well as last year, he said.

"Our hockey items seemed to sell well," Rahlfs said. "But snowblowers and snow shovels were down significantly."

Electronic pets sold well, he said, and scooters have become popular. However, there was no must-have toy this year. Traditional favorites such as board games, Barbie dolls and Hot Wheels sold well.

Nationally, some retailers resorted to big sales and mark-downs to move stock off their floors. Rahlfs said Fred Meyer fared much better.

"There didn't seem to be any drastic mark-downs at the end of the season," he said. "We just had our regular ad plan. There were no categories we got hung with."

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