and Jamison Cocklin
Let the shopping begin.
With Black Friday out of the way, retailers across the state and the country have opened the floodgates for a holiday shopping season that will see consumers with a confidence level at its highest point in years.
Tempered only slightly by political and fiscal uncertainties, both the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants and the National Retail Federation are forecasting gains. Seasonal buying is anticipated to get help from increased employment, reduced consumer debt and an upbeat view of the economy.
In Ohio, sales are expected to increase by 4.2 percent from November and December 2011. In Youngstown, the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants is forecasting a 3.4 percent increase, with the metropolitan area projected to net about $583 million in sales.
Researchers expect consumers to spend an average of $750 on gifts, decor, greeting cards and other seasonal items.
In all, nearly $15 billion is expected to be spent across Ohio, while the National Retail Federation is forecasting $586 billion in U.S. sales.
An extra weekend between Thanksgiving and Christmas has retailers looking forward to a longer shopping season as well, said Joe Bell, spokesman for the Cafaro Co.
Retailers that lease from Cafaro, like those at strip malls across the area, are planning longer hours and earlier opening times.
“The longer shopping season gives people more time to shop and plan their purchases,” Bell said.
Cafaro Co. is expecting about a 4 percent increase in spending this year, he said. Last year, expectations were for a 2.5 to 3 percent increase in spending, but it was actually more than 5.6 percent.
“We’re certainly not expecting this year to be that good,” Bell said.
The National Retail Federation’s projection is lower than last year’s as well, forecasting a 4.1 percent increase in sales across the country, but still a good sign for a sluggish economy in what economists see as a possible nod to stronger growth in the first quarter of 2013.
“It’s a positive for the retail sector and the overall economy,” said James McConnon, an economist at The University of Maine that specializes in retail sales. “It’s looking like it will be a good season.”
Tom Duma, owner of Thom Duma Fine Jewelry in Warren, expects strong sales this holiday shopping season.
“This year’s been great, sales have increased every month since January,” he said. “We deal mostly to guys, and guys shop at the last minute. On the 22nd, 23rd and 24th [of December] we’ll be jammed wall-to-wall.”
An extra weekend for holiday shopping is rare, Duma said.
That fifth weekend will help niche retailers such as the Harley-Davidson Biketown in Austintown, where owner Tom Wronkovich says the holidays help sell more clothing and memorabilia.
“Pretty much anything with a Harley-Davidson logo sells pretty well,” he said.
The dealership does not have a big Black Friday rush, Wronkovich said.
“Most people go to the big-box stores and then a couple of days after they come to us for destination shopping,” he said. “We have a bump right after Thanksgiving, then its steady. It starts to pick up about the second week of December, and we’re really busy the last three or four days before Christmas. We see the same thing every year.”
Other than Black Friday, McConnon said Cyber Monday and Small Business Saturday, which took place yesterday, are helping drive mass sales events as well.
One survey showed that tomorrow’s Cyber Monday will find nearly half of online shoppers spending more in a single day than the whole season combined.
Likewise, Small Business Saturday, first started by American Express in 2010 to expose their brand and generate more sales at hometown retailers, is helping to stoke demand for local products at specialty outlets across the country.
Still, big-box stores and general merchandisers are poised to win big.
“Consumers have become savvy and educated, focusing on price and value,” McConnon said. “There are more unemployed people out there, and they really focus on how they spend their dollars. Big-box stores that promote and emphasize price and value are a big draw.”
Any headwinds this season could come with rising gas prices, stable for now, but still affecting travel plans this season.
Airlines struggling to save on jet fuel have cut the number of available flights, putting a squeeze on airfare. And AAA’s holiday analysis put the number of Americans that traveled at Thanksgiving at 43.6 million, only a 0.7 percent increase from last year.
The so-called “fiscal cliff,” which finds lawmakers jostling over spending cuts and tax increases, also has some consumers on edge about the economy, with potential to slightly curb superfluous spending this year, according to economists.
Though most people in the retail industry are bullish on this year’s shopping season, The Winner in Sharon is not anticipating big crowds, said Peggy Emmett, general manager.
“I think a lot of people just associate us with prom dresses, and we do sell more than 8,000 per year. They don’t think about us having other stuff to offer,” she said.
The store welcomes customers looking to avoid the holiday-rush crowds, Emmett said.
“We tell people to come here and shop for themselves, and we push the gift cards, because prom season is coming up,” she said.
Gift cards will be a top seller in 2012, said Michael Jones, a research assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati Economics Center, which conducted this year’s study for the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants.
“Clothing will be the most popular item this holiday season,” he said. “But gift cards and even cash will be popular gifts. There’s nothing better than receiving cash for Christmas.”