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Holiday Spending: A Tale of Browsers and Buyers

According to Lewis Wildman, owner of Jordan’s of Princeton, the cards and gifts store in the Princeton Shopping Center, business this holiday season has been “flat to under.” While his store saw as many customers as in previous years, and they were all in good spirits, they were not spending as much. “People were buying less and thinking carefully about where to spend their money,” said Mr. Wildman. “Everyone’s Christmas list was shorter and the Internet isn’t helping.”

One bright spot, said Mr. Wildman, was his store’s new toy section where products by the Melissa and Doug brand are doing well. “Any mother with young children knows these lego-type items, crafts, stamps, and art supplies for ages two to eight.”

Sales of children’s toys proved to be up for Jazams as well. “If it weren’t for the snow, we’d have had a record-breaking end-of-year. Even so, it’s been incredible,” said Jazams owner Joanne Farrugia. Speaking by phone Monday from New York City while visiting with her six-year-old son Felix, she described her Princeton store at 25 Palmer Square East as “very busy” and the pop up store that Jazams created in partnership with PlayMobil on Hulfish Street as “more fun than anything.”

Felix, it seems, also had a good end of year with Santa bringing him a castle, a train, a ball, and “one of those things you stand on to watch the trains go by,” he said when handed the phone by his mother. “That’s a pedestrian bridge for his train,” explained Ms. Farrugia.

A call to the Bent Spoon at 35 Palmer Square West failed to elicit comment, but a recorded message noted that the store was “booked up for orders through January 5.” The store is known for introducing seasonal products and its latest flavor of ice cream, “Spruce Tree,” is tickling a few winter palates.

Hank Siegel of Hamilton Jewelers, who was in the Princeton store through Christmas Eve and in the Hamilton store in Florida on Monday, observed a very successful holiday season in Princeton. “We had new clients as well as friends of the Hamilton brand returning as they have done for a number of years.” What were the most popular items this year? A Hamilton brand bracelet that came in two sizes overlaid in white, yellow or rose gold for $95 sold so well that the store had to increase production. Diamond stud earrings, which Mr. Siegel said are popular year-round, were also strong this year in a range of sizes and prices from a few hundred dollars to many thousands of dollars.

Henry Landau of the clothing store on Nassau Street also reported “a very strong holiday season” with sales up from last year.

Relatively new in Princeton, the Farmhouse Store on Hulfish has found its niche. “We opened in the fall of 2012 and people didn’t know who we were at first, now that they have found our unique items, we did really well,” said owner Ron Menapace. Selling especially well were items from the store’s “geography” collection: tea towels, glasses, and pillows from states across the country. “These make great hostess gifts,” said Mr. Menapace.

But Cathy Barasch, assistant manager of Kitchen Kapers on Hulfish, voiced similar feelings to those expressed by the owner of Jordan’s in the Princeton Shopping Center: decent foot traffic not always translating into sales, with customers doing a lot of browsing and price comparing, and possibly shopping online.

Such comments are in accord with the reported last minute surge in online sales, encouraged by bad weather, that caused big businesses like Amazon, Kohl’s and Wal-Mart to be swamped and unable to deliver packages in time for Christmas.

Reports from IBM estimate that Internet sales jumped 37 percent on year over the pre-Christmas weekend. UPS was caught out when the volume of air packages exceeded its capacity. Online demand was much greater than the company had forecast, said a UPS spokeswoman. FedEx and USPS also suffered delays.

One other factor affecting sales, was the shorter-than-usual holiday season. “The season took a long time to get started and it was shorter this year,” said Ms. Barasch. “While the last few days have been good, it was slow getting there.”

With Thanksgiving falling in late November, there seemed to be less time for holiday shopping this year. The short season may also have affected sales at Labyrinth Books where Dorothea von Moltke reported “a good holiday season, though not as strong as the previous two years.”

“In general, it was another season in which on many days we were happy to find ourselves in a store bustling with people excited about books. This is what makes this the most fun time of year,” said Ms. Von Moltke.

New for the store owner, this year, were the number of customers asking that Labyrinth match the prices of books on the online retailer Amazon. “It appears that price-matching is becoming more of a trend and of course price-conscious shoppers are not looking to be educated about the many reasons why a brick and mortar store can’t compete with prices from an online retailer that doesn’t need to break even let alone make a profit on book sales,” commented Ms. Von Moltke. “In the Amazon business model, books are loss-leaders for cosmetics, appliances, etc,” she explained.

While sympathetic to such requests, Ms. Moltke said: “we are still trying to figure out how to respond in this situation since often we are dealing with a customer who in fact would prefer to shop local but for whom the world of heavily discounted pricing online has become the new normal even though it is destructive for just the sort of businesses he or she may be hoping to support, and we would like to honor the fact that they have bothered to come into our store.”

One anecdote Ms. Von Moltke shared from this year’s shopping experience demonstrates why customers still value the local small business experience. It happened on Christmas Eve just after the bookstore had locked its doors. Two latecomers knocked at the door begging to be let in. One needed a children’s book, any children’s book would do, the other needed a copy of the Bible. Although anxious to get home, Ms. Von Moltke’s colleague re-opened the store and helped them find what they needed. Try that at Wal-Mart.

 

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