Despite a sluggish national economy — further slowed by October’s partial federal government shutdown — area retailers are anticipating a positive holiday shopping season.
In November and December, U.S. retail sales are expected to increase 3.9 percent to $602.1 billion, up from 3.5 percent growth in 2012, according to the National Retail Federation.
Retail sales in Charlottesville and Albemarle County are also up 1.5 percent through the third quarter of 2013, compared with the same time last year, according to the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“We are now well into the holiday shopping season, and it is important to note that the reported Albemarle-Charlottesville total aggregate retail sales data over the three months of this year’s third quarter are higher than at any time since 2006-2007,” Valerie Long, chairwoman of the chamber’s board of directors, said in an announcement.
According to Virginia Department of Taxation data cited by the chamber, Charlottesville and Albemarle saw an aggregated $1.6 billion in total retail sales during the first three quarters of 2013.
During the same period, retail sales also increased in Augusta and Greene counties but declined in Louisa County and Waynesboro, the chamber said.
“We have an extra week [this year] before Thanksgiving … but the sales have already begun, the retailers are already doing all they can to drive people in. I think things will definitely pick up,” said Laurie Peterson, president of the Virginia Retail Merchants Association.
But despite the good outlook, consumer confidence still hasn’t returned to pre-recession levels.
“We continue on a rise out of what had been a very poor and challenging economy,” said Greg Fairchild, a professor at the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration at the University of Virginia. Compared with last year, “I think, generally speaking, the average person has more money in their pocketbook than they had.”
Fairchild said strong interest and sales in electronics likely will continue this year, thanks to the “sex appeal” and convenience of electronic gifts.
However, Bill Crutchfield, founder of the eponymous Albemarle-based electronics retailer, which recently opened a new bricks and mortar concept store, has a more modest outlook.
“Our Charlottesville store will experience a strong season mainly because of the success of our new store concept,” Crutchfield said in an email. “However, I am less optimistic about our national online/catalog business, which is 25 times greater than our local business. Our national economy is still very weak. Partly in response to the dysfunction of our federal government, consumer confidence is falling.”
Although those factors don’t bode well for the sale of discretionary purchases such as consumer electronics, Crutchfield said he sees a silver lining for the company.
“Since Crutchfield is outperforming our competitors, we are gaining market share. When the economy does improve, our national business will enjoy renewed, strong growth,” he said.
Once again this year, big-box retailers are taking flak for pushing Black Friday’s early-morning opening sales back earlier and earlier. This year, more than a dozen national retailers are planning to open on Thanksgiving Day, according to The Associated Press.
But not all stores are jumping on the bandwagon.
“We’re kind of holding true to what we’ve always done,” said Ryan Green, manager of Vineyard Vines at the Shops at Stonefield in Albemarle. “Since it’s a smaller shopping center and not that many stores are open at this time, we’re opening two hours early on Black Friday.”
Green said that spring is typically the busiest time for the Connecticut-based apparel company.
Although some stores have a certain seasonal appeal, “The holiday season is critical to all retailers, and that includes everyone on the Downtown Mall,” said Joan Fenton, who owns several downtown businesses and serves on the Downtown Business Association’s board of directors.
Fenton said lower gas prices might be the incentive consumers need to spend a little more this year.
“I am thinking it will be a good season,” Fenton said in an email. “The economy is holding steady. The Downtown Mall is the heart and soul of Charlottesville and there is a growing awareness about how important it is to support local businesses.”