Wichita merchants let out sighs of relief

The days leading up to the traditional start of the holiday shopping season have been a pleasant surprise for Wichita retailers.

There aren't any financial windfalls with Christmas just a month away, to be sure — unemployment remains high and the Wichita economy continues to wobble under the instability of the city's planemakers.

But instead of flat sales — or worse — most Wichita retailers say modest sales growth is within their grasp this Christmas season, growth consistent with national forecasts of 2 to 4 percent more at the cash register.

"So far, it's a little ahead of last year. We're absolutely thrilled with that," said Greg Hephner, owner of the longtime television retailer Hephner TV & Electronics.

"We were expecting it to be flat, because the economic news has not been the best for Wichita with the plant layoffs and so forth. We were actually hoping for it to be flat."

Beth Tully of Cocoa Dolce Artisan Chocolates said she doesn't know what to expect.

"But through mid-November, we're up in the low double-digits from last year. We're seeing a 100 percent increase in the companies and corporations getting back in our business mix, and from the perspective of a high-end retailer, that's the best sign we've seen of a local recovery."

The recipe for holiday sales growth this year has been simple, said Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation: Get out in front of the consumer early with your best deals.

"Retailers still know they have to work very hard to get the customer's attention," Grannis said. "There's more competition than ever attracting customers: Specialty stores with discount stores, department stores with specialty stores. All retailers are competing for the same shopper.

"With that in mind, buying online to ship to store, pre-Black Friday deals, free shipping and for some stores even opening on Thanksgiving are their way to create an edge."

What the experts see

The NRF forecasts that holiday retail sales will increase 2.3 percent this year to $447.1 billion.

That's slightly lower than the 10-year average of 2.5 percent, but it's an improvement from last year's 0.4 percent rise and the 3.9 percent decline of 2008.

The International Council of Shopping Centers is slightly more optimistic, forecasting a rise in holiday sales of 3 to 3.5 percent, which is in line with retail sales growth throughout the year.

What they don't agree on is tomorrow: Consumer Reports forecasts that 102 million Americans will hit the malls on Black Friday, down 16 million from last year.

The NRF, on the other hand, forecasts 138 million shoppers on the streets Friday, up about 2.5 percent from 2009.

"We are still hearing that, nationwide, retailers are still encouraged by what they're hearing," Grannis said.

"For us, the 2.3 is still more of a realistic look at what's going on — not overly positive and not less than what retailers are expecting. We think it's a very realistic look at what consumers feel and what retailers should expect."

What the locals say

The early weeks of Christmas 2010 have been "so far, so good," said Valerie Reimers, owner of LuCinda's in Old Town.

Most are reporting sales growth of between 2 and 7 percent amid, they say, some subtle signs of an economic recovery in Wichita.

Through mid-November, sales are up in the low double-digits at Cocoa Dolce, Tully said. The reasons: Corporations are back in a giving mood, Internet sales are up, and walk-in business is brisk.

"I thought, quite frankly, that if we had industry growth it'd be fabulous," Tully said. "Somewhere between 2 and 4 percent, within the niche of fine chocolate in the industry. But we're seeing much better results than that, much better sales, much better pre-bookings."

The news is similar at Gwen Ottenberg's Imagine That Toys, where she projects 7 percent sales growth this Christmas.

"I think that customers appreciate what we have," she said. "The good quality stuff, the stuff that's different, the stuff you'll see in a magazine and think you couldn't get without paying shipping."

The key for that success is the national blueprint: Get the good deals in front of customers early.

"No question customers are more value-conscious," Hephner said. "They're looking for the biggest high-performance television they can get for the money."

Hephner's manufacturers, such as LG and Mitsubishi, have been aggressive with special offers, he said.

The cake business has been a little slower thus far, said Monica Schlegel, owner of Monica's Bundt Cakes.

Still, her business is on a 2 percent growth pace.

"We're more a last-minute, pick-the-cake-up-on Wednesday thing," Schlegel said. "People typically buy and eat a lot of cakes over the holidays, so we look for brisk sales. We haven't been disappointed so far."

Most don't expect much from Black Friday, the retail industry's term for the Friday after Thanksgiving.

"For us, in years past, people go to the big guys for their deep discounts," Reimers said. "When they're ready for laid-back fun they come here. We've got an extra discount on our sale stuff Friday, but we don't do anything really big. Friday is a big chain day."

And some are happy for the business they've gotten.

"In our community, a lot of people have lost their jobs," Schlegel said. "My cakes are a special treat, and I know that people have to watch their money, so we're grateful for where we are this Christmas."

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