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Wednesday, 23 December 2009 13:45

Snowstorm puts damper on critical shopping weekend

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Business owners in Western North Carolina are wrapping up an absurdly challenging year.

On top of dealing with a lingering recession and a rockslide that has shut down a major section of Interstate 40 for months, they faced a major snowstorm Friday, before one of the busiest shopping weekends of the year.

The few shoppers who ventured out to Waynesville’s Main Street on Saturday were greeted mostly with closed signs, though a handful of stores were open.

One of them was the Christian Bible Book Shop, whose owner could easily open shop on Saturday since he’d spent Friday night sleeping at the bookstore.

Another was Twigs & Leaves, whose employee Kathy Baumler spent Friday night in the owner’s apartment above the store to ensure doors would be open on Saturday.

The streets were deserted that day, but the few shoppers who braved the roads were grateful that the store was open for business.

Baumler said she even had customers who traveled from Georgia specifically to see the snow.

October, July and December are the three biggest months for Twigs & Leaves and many other stores in Waynesville.

Unfortunately, the snowstorm interrupted the usual crescendo of sales right up till Christmas Eve, Baumler said.

“You feel somewhat disappointed looking forward to the adrenaline flow of all that activity, and it isn’t there,” said Baumler.

Baumler likened being a retailer in 2009 to being a farmer coping with a year of bad weather, acknowledging that some things are just out of business owners’ control.

“You adjust to that,” Baumler said. “There’s not a thing you can do about it.”

Over in Sylva, less snow on the ground meant more stores were open for business over the weekend.

Hollifield Jewelry was one Sylva store that remained open.

“We still had customers on Saturday,” said owner Steve Dennis. “Just nothing like we would have on a Saturday this close to Christmas.”

For Dennis, the six-week holiday shopping season accounts for 60 percent of his annual revenue. But Dennis anticipated a slower holiday season by slashing prices at his store.

Dennis said the downfall in business started last year and has snowballed since then.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the writing on the wall all year long,” said Dennis, who lowered prices by 20 to 40 percent.

Though Dennis had been able to move higher-end items in the past, he knew that people would continue being cautious with their pocketbooks this year.

“People still want to buy a gift, but they simply don’t have as much income,” said Dennis.

Like many other stores, Dennis will extend store hours in the last days leading up to Christmas to accommodate full-time workers who missed out on the final shopping weekend before Christmas.

While many shopkeepers say they are doing business that is comparable to last year, Dennis pointed out that nobody was exactly setting any records. And the snow certainly didn’t help.

“It most definitely was a perfect storm,” said Dennis.

Some employees reported that their stores actually benefitted from the snowstorm, including Blackrock Outdoor Company and Jackson’s General Store in Sylva, and Mast General Store in Waynesville.

Alex Hunt, an employee at Blackrock, said the store closed three hours early on Friday but was open through the weekend.

While Friday had been “dead,” business picked up on Saturday afternoon.

“Saturday I know a lot of people were coming in asking for propane, gas, lanterns,” said Hunt.

“The cold weather may have helped our sales,” said store manager Kirk Childress. “We sold a lot of gloves and hats on Saturday.”

Childress said while October sales were up, November was a different story.

“The week of Thanksgiving was good,” said Childress. “All the rest of November was bad news.”

So far, December has been decent for Blackrock, according to Childress.

However, cold and rainy weather has contributed to a less than average holiday season at Earthworks Frame Gallery in Waynesville.

Due to the recession, some have tightened their spending circles and stopped buying gifts for as many people as they had in years past, said store manager Elisa Holder.

“We definitely do rely on that end of year rush,” said Holder. “Three or four years ago, we would have people lined up out the door to get in and a wrapping station with girls, that’s all they did all day, was wrap.”

While Earthworks planned to stay open late Thursday through Sunday, the snowstorm shut down operations on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

“The three biggest days,” said Holder. “We’re working seven days a week, having it all lead up to this weekend, and it falls flat.”

Holder and several other Waynesville shopkeepers reported that they saw poor attendance at the annual Night Before Christmas events, when stores are open late on the first two Saturdays in December to encourage shopping. But weather wasn’t kind again, with freezing temperatures, rain and even a light snow to blame for the lower than usual turnout.

However, Deanna Schleifer, owner of Christmas is Everyday in Waynesville, said she had “great” attendance during the event. But the snowstorm swung things around.

“If this hadn’t happened, I could have met last year,” said Schleifer. “That’s how good it’s been.”

Annie Ritota, owner of Annie’s Naturally Bakery in Sylva, said while business is definitely down compared to last year, there was some hope to be found on Monday.

“I did see an awful lot of people shopping today,” said Ritota. “I was surprised. A lot of people who were unable to shop over the weekend came.”

Ritota decided to open the bakery that day even though it is customarily closed on the first workday of the week.

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