Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 1
 
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
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Slumping Toward the Cash Register: Princeton Weathers Holiday Season

Ellen Gilbert

Although he was once an enthusiastic believer in Princeton’s status as a “happy valley” blessed with a world-class university and thriving corporate culture that made it largely impervious to the vicissitudes of the outside world, Palmer Square Management Vice President David Newton recently had to acknowledge that the area has suffered as a result of the nation’s economic downturn.

The two kinds of shops that characterize Palmer Square, chain stores and independents, are both struggling, he said. Chico’s, a women’s clothing store with a branch at Princeton MarketFair, recently vacated its Palmer Square West location. And while Jazaams toy store made an apparently successful transition to a larger location on the square, its former site on Hulfish Street remains unoccupied. On a positive note, he reported, Banana Republic has extended its lease, and the athletic apparel store lululemon opened in October — just before canceling its next 20 deals.

Cosmetics are a known mainstay during recessions (it’s cheaper to buy a lipstick than a dress), and Palmer Square’s Blue Mercury is no exception. Mr. Newton said that the Princeton outpost of the chain that offers make-up and skin-care products “almost stands on its own.” Independent stores carrying less reliably popular merchandise, on the other hand, “may not have the business to sustain themselves,” he said.

The urge to look good in hard times may also account for a successful Christmas season at E.Y. Staats Co. Hair Cutters on Moore Street. “I’d have to say I was thrilled,” reported owner Elaine Staats. “It was a nice surprise. We had lots of people coming in, including a lot of new clients because of our web page.” The traffic in the salon actually took its toll on Ms. Staats’ own plans: “It was so busy, that I’ve just gotten my hair done today,” she reported.

Labyrinth Books co-owner Cliff Simms said that Christmas sales at the year-old store “were pretty comparable to last year’s,” with typically popular holiday choices like fiction, biographies, and cookbooks doing relatively well. While gift certificate purchases were down, sales of discounted books were good, and sales were generally up about five percent from last year, he reported. Looking ahead, Mr. Simms observed that “it will be a difficult year for all retail businesses,” while pointing out that because of competition from other forms of entertainment, bookstores have been facing a declining market for about a decade. “For the next year we’re going to try to be as good booksellers as we can, convincing people that books are worthwhile purchases,” he said. “Books are relatively cheap compared to other entertainments, and much better for the imagination.”

“Considering the economy, we did well,” reported Ten Thousand Villages store manager Karen Cantrell. The fair trade retailer in the Princeton Shopping Center experienced “a slow start, but December actually came up well,” with the store placing third in company sales. A community fundraiser for breast cancer research, held in collaboration with Womanspace and Majestic Dragons at the beginning of December was, she said, “a huge success that we plan on doing again. People just really went all out that day because they knew that 15 percent on all purchases was going to breast cancer.” Right now Ten Thousand Villages is offering its annual “Caravan Sale,” with 50 to 75 percent off holiday items and other merchandise.

Summoning up his penchant for seeing the bright side of things, Mr. Newton reported that Palmer Square Management would be “looking at everything on a case-by-case basis,” during the coming months, while taking advantage of the kinds of “creativity” that difficult times can tap into. “When there’s a challenge, you look around for things that you can grow with,” he said, pointing out that Blue Mercury, the Bent Spoon, and J. Crew all “took root and flourished” in the aftermath of 9/11. With residential development at Palmer Square moving ahead, Mr. Newton said that he is in a flexible mode, looking for “new concepts that will further define Palmer Square.” People with ideas for opening retail stores are asked to get in touch with Mr. Newton or Marketing Director Anita Fresolone at (609) 921-2333.

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