The doors were open at Spruce Home & Garden in West Hartford Center, literally wide open the way manager Mary Goodwin likes it, well before 9 a.m. Thursday. And the markdowns were plentiful.
But customers were slow to arrive — and that’s pretty much how it shaped up in stores around the area, whether they were big boxes like Target and Toys R Us, independent shops or the mothership of Westfarms Mall.
Miranda Basley, store manager at Second Time Around in West Hartford Center, places a sign outside advertising 50 percent off Thursday — morning only. Basley said December sales are up 50 percent compared to last year in the consignment store.
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That seems odd considering that the day after Christmas is yet another landmark day in the mass cultural activity of shopping. Between returns for those pajamas that were too small, to gift cards that are now sold in racks with multiple options at places such as Walgreen’s, to clearance sales with fully stocked shelves, “Boxing Day” would appear to have the ingredients of a retail madhouse.
Maybe it was the light dusting of snow, maybe the quiet start was a continuation of the mixed retail season of 2013, maybe shoppers needed the morning off. We could be seeing the effects of prosperity not widely shared, and we certainly are seeing a breakout year for online sales.
But if merchants were worried, they didn’t say so in Thursday’s Christmas afterglow. And by afternoon, the parking lots were jammed.
“We had a very successful season,” said Goodwin, at Spruce. “I measure it on the relationships I formed with my customers and the people I’ve met.”
Uh-oh. That sounds like a nice way of saying sales were flat. But no, Goodwin said, on the contrary, the store is up 14 percent for the year and this month already matched December of 2012 with six days remaining.
And that doesn’t even count the increase of 40 percent to 50 percent in online sales at the seven-store chain, based in New Milford, according to Joe Bittner, Spruce’s e-commerce director.
As we will see in the coming weeks, sales at national chains were not so robust in part because the season was shorter than usual. Although store figures aren’t available yet, firms such as ShopperTrak have reported declines in year-over-year totals in recent weeks, and an alarming drop in foot traffic averaging 24 percent in each of the two weeks before last Sunday.
The National Retail Federation Reported a decline in overall spending during the Thursday-Sunday long weekend of Thanksgiving and Black Friday, and, like everyone else, has reported sharply higher online revenues overall. But the trade group has not yet reported on how the season fared compared with 2012.
MasterCard Advisors said Thursday that “holiday spending” rose by 2.3 percent from 2012, a decent but not outstanding bump, Reuters reported. MasterCard’s measure shows sales of items such as jewelry and home furnishings, which may or may not be gifts.
For retailers, the season had only four weekends — one of which brought a snowstorm in the Northeast — along with the permanent rise of online and mobile-site shopping that hurts any store not participating. And with deeper discounts this year, profits are likely to remain squeezed.
At Toys R Us, the returns desk was quiet at 10:30 a.m. and a clerk said it had been that way all morning. The whole season has been “more settled down” than in years past, said the clerk, who did not give her name because she is not authorized to speak for the company. One shopper, Bari DeBenedette, brought in an indoor tricycle for her 3-year-old, all assembled, and quickly returned it for a larger model in a new box.
“He’s growing faster than I thought,” said DeBenedette, who lives in Long Island and was visiting family.
The same can’t be said of the Connecticut economy, though it is headed in the right direction, gradually. We will never know the effect of holiday sales on the state’s economy because there’s no state measure of volume, and, anyway, the stores that are based here add up to just a small fraction of the industry.
At Westfarms, where most stores opened at 8 a.m., traffic was picking up but still resembled a typical Saturday, if that, and certainly not one during the holiday season. “It’s a long day,” Westfarms general manager Kevin Keenan said. “People are not in a panic mode the day after Christmas the way they are before Christmas…Today will be right up there. Today will be in the top five.”
Hard to imagine it wouldn’t be, and that punctuates the season in retail overall: Not bad, not great.
And underlying all of it is the attitude of shoppers like Vilma Castro, who was looking for discounts, but also brought back some games she had purchased as extra gifts at Toys R Us and never even gift-wrapped.
“I’ve got teenagers. They didn’t need it,” said Castro, of Hartford. “They were very blessed.”
Anytime the word “need” finds its way into a conversation about retail, it’s a bad sign for the folks at the cash register.