Holiday shoppers leave merchants jolly

Posted: Friday, December 28, 2001

Now that Christmas is past, retailers around the nation are counting receipts with anxiety.

But despite national news about recession and fear, merchants on the central Kenai Peninsula are reporting a merry shopping season. Independent retailers in Kenai and Soldotna report that, on the whole, sales are equal to or above those from last year.

"We had a real good season. ... Our experience here was not the doom and gloom they had predicted," said Steve Beeson, owner of Beemun's Variety in Soldotna. "Our economy is just different from the economy Outside."

Others echoed his upbeat assessment.

"It was a good year. I think people shopped at home a little more," said Mike Sweeney, owner of Sweeney's Clothing in Soldotna.

Retailers began the Christmas shopping season with a feeling of uncertainty. Many had low expectations and were pleased to find things better than anticipated.

Paula Lovett, who owns Far North, which sells western wear, framing and western-theme gifts in North Kenai, was one.

"I wasn't disappointed with December, all things considered. ... It was a little bit more than I expected. I didn't know how it was going to pan out."

She described the retail scene this fall as "weird." Business was terrible in October, and holiday shopping got off to a slow start. People passed up her usually popular shirts and bought a lot of gourmet food items instead. Framing was way up. Overall, her stores sales were slightly above the same time in 2000, she said.

"I think things are going to turn around for us," she said of the economic slowdown.

Donna Schwanke, owner of Donna's Country and Victorian Gifts in the Blazy Mall in Soldotna, also reported unusual shopping patterns.

"I would not have been surprised to have been way down this year with the economy down and all. I was pleasantly surprised," she said.

The biggest surprise was when she held her annual introduction to Christmas event Nov. 3. She worried that people would be uneasy because of the war and in no mood to shop, but it turned out to be the most successful in the 14 years she has been doing it.

"People want to get out, get their minds off things and do something fun," she said.

This year she found shoppers watching their dollars. She estimated that they spent less per person, but bought gifts for more people. Favorites included bath items, aromatherapy supplies and candles.

"People want things to mellow them out," Schwanke said.

Beeson, too, noted a new seriousness in shoppers.

"They had thought things through. They weren't running and gunning like in the past."

In some cases, the sober mood decreased sales.

Kris Harris, a part owner of Good Books and More, a Christian book and gift shop in Kenai, reported that sales were down, despite a revamped selection emphasizing gift items rather than books.

Bibles are perennial favorites, and the gifts, such as snowmen figurines, were popular this year, she said.

"Personally, I didn't feel quite ready for Christmas," she said.

"It was really a rather good season, but not as good as we hoped."

Others, however, found themselves riding the crest of a Christmas shopping boom.

"It was just incredible -- incredibly good," said Paul Miller, owner of Soldotna Trustworthy Hardware.

His store saw a large jump in business and sold out of most holiday items.

"The mood was great," he said.

The Tustumena Smokehouse also reported a banner year. Owner Fred West said 2001's holiday sales were his best ever. He attributed the success to increased advertising, returning customers and an emphasis on quality. Mailable gift packs were a big hit, he said.

"They were buying less, but they were buying the best," he said.

Tony Kissee, the owner of the Radio Shack outlets in Kenai and Soldotna, also was grinning about December sales.

"Last Christmas was a record-selling Christmas. Our main goal was to match that. But we beat it," he said.

Electronics proved to be hot sellers during the gift-giving season. Palm Pilots and surround sound systems were most popular.

The merchants agreed that Alaska's retail scene is insulated from the woes afflicting the other states, but that weather can change consumer demand in a hurry.

Although gift shop owners said that the frigid temperatures earlier in the month kept shoppers at home, others reaped a winter windfall. Sweeney's Clothing reported that coats were moving briskly, and Soldotna Trustworthy Hardware sold so many gloves that owner Miller wonders where they all go.

The holidays have rewards beyond cash flow for the merchants. Harris, from Good Books and More, pointed out that it is a fun time despite the hard work because of meeting so many people during the cheerful season.

And now that 2001 is ending, they can start looking forward to the 2002 Christmas shopping season.

Said Beeson from Beemun's, "Believe it or not, the first of February I'll be out looking at new Christmas items already."

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