January 2, 2013

Online Shopping Impacts Holiday Sales For Area Stores

The reports are in. While the 2012 holiday shopping season was, for many area merchants, an encouraging improvement over previous years, not every Princeton proprietor is happy with the season’s returns. Trends toward online shopping have more than one store owner concerned about the future.

“This season was way off for us, because in my field, customers have cut down their holiday card mailing lists,” says Lewis Wildman, owner of Jordan’s Cards and Gifts in Princeton Shopping Center. “They’re sending out what I consider tacky email greetings and e-invites to parties. It affects our business because customers who would normally be ordering are not walking into the store and buying other stuff at the same time. The net effect is that business is off. The consumers tell us they love our store, but it won’t exist if they don’t support it.”

Between Hurricane Sandy, the looming fiscal cliff, and online shopping, the holiday season at JaZam’s toy store in Palmer Square was shaky at first. “We did pull it out in the end,” says owner Joanne Farrugia. “And sales were probably the same as last year. But it was erratic, slow to start, and very late until the last week. It’s because the last few days before Christmas, you can’t get anything online. The shipping does eventually come to a stop, thank God.”

Ms. Farrugia shares Mr. Wildman’s worries about future buying trends. “The retail landscape is going to be different,” she says. “It’s the big elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. And we should. There’s no point in waiting for it to take us down.”

As part of the committee behind the Hometown Princeton campaign to encourage patronage of local stores, Ms. Farrugia has thought a lot about making the public aware that buying local is important. “I think there is a real disconnect for people. They just don’t get it,” she says. “We have people who come into our store and literally say to us that they want to see it and touch it and play with it and then order it online. The thing is that we charge the actual retail price. We don’t overcharge or undercharge. That seems fair to me. What no one seems to get is that if you get it for less [online], somebody is paying for that.”

Mr. Wildman lost three big customers in one day during the holiday shopping season. “They said they were doing e-greetings instead of ordering cards,” he says. “One of those was a company that does 500 greetings. Others are cutting it out totally. People who understand and appreciate us being here came out as they normally would, but a lot of faces were missing this year. We’re not closing, but if the trend continues over the next five years, I just don’t know.”

Area stores less affected by online buying report either a status quo or increase in sales from last year. While not all of the figures are complete, proprietors have a sense of how the season has progressed.

“We had a fantastic holiday season,” says Mark Censits, owner of Cool Vines wine store on Spring Street and another in Westfield. “Princeton was even stronger [than Westfield] in terms of its growth. After a number of years of building loyalty in this market, people really count on us when they need things sent and delivered, which is one of the extra services we offer along with things like putting together wine dinners.”

Mr. Censits attributes some of his growth to a slightly improved economy. “I think people are a little bit less price-sensitive this year,” he says. “Some of it has to do with corporate events and gift-giving. They’re doing it again and people are a little more relaxed in their spending. And enjoying a nice bottle of wine with a holiday meal is something people are allowing themselves to do. People are buying more in the mid-tier price range.”

Across Spring Street at Hinkson’s stationery store, owner Andrew Mangone has been pleased to see an upswing in sales. “We had a very good season, though we got off to a rough start in November,” he says. “But December was good, and we were busy right up through Christmas Eve. The season was at least as good as last year, if not better. But we’ll have to see the numbers before we know for sure.”

New to the local retail landscape this season is The Farmhouse Store in Palmer Square. Selling home furnishings and related items, the shop, which, like Cool Vines, has another location in Westfield, has been busy. “It was our first holiday season here, and it was good,” says co-owner Kristin Menapace. “We got a lot of positive feedback about the fact that we have unique products. It was nice to get such a welcome from the Princeton community. I didn’t really know what to expect, but all in all, for being a brand new business in town, it was great.”

Princeton Tour Company’s weekend holiday trolley tours were “a complete success,” according to owner Mimi Omiecinski, who calls the rides through town “55 minutes of non-stop shameless name-dropping.” Sponsored by Callaway Henderson Sotheby’s International Realty, Palmer Square, and Hamilton Jewelers, the $15 tours were nearly sold out the first weekend after Thanksgiving. “If we didn’t sell out online, we would get so many walk-ups during the day of the tour,” Ms. Omiecinski says. “I never really know until then what it’s going to be like, but it all came together. If I get sponsored again for next year, I will absolutely do it again.”