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Christmas sales surprise merchants

Dire predictions for a dismal holiday retail climate did not come true—at least not for most merchants here in Bainbridge.

In spite of Decatur County having a high unemployment rate, many of its citizens apparently enjoyed a bountiful Christmas.

Local merchants are adding up their numbers and reporting better than expected sales for Christmas 2009. In fact, many are saying they had better Christmas sales this year than last.

This apparently follows a national trend reported on MSNBC this week that retail sales nationwide were up 3.6 percent over December 2008, and consumer spending is said to account for two-thirds of the economy.

In addition, those who tracked their customer base are finding that Bainbridge residents did indeed stay home and support their local merchants, while many are also attracting new shoppers from the surrounding areas, including those who cross the border from Florida to shop here.

Listen to what the store owners and managers have to say.

Threasa Hall, manager of the Bainbridge Belk store said, “We had a really good December. We picked up business over last Christmas season.”

Hall continued that she was a little surprised by the results. She had hoped to be able to break even, but it was far better than that.

Hall thinks the early cold snap may have helped put people in the mood as customers rushed in to buy coats for men and women, fleece robes, sweaters and Snuggies, all items to keep one warm. Women’s boots were huge sellers this year, as were denim and active wear for the entire family. Another big seller for Belk was the Keurig coffeemaker that makes one cup of coffee at a time, using prepackaged, flavored coffee, teas and other hot beverages. Bedding items and small electronic items were also on the most-wanted list.

Belk experienced extended shopping hours and Hall believes that helped the sales, especially the week prior to Christmas. She noted the evening hours worked better than the early morning ones.

Regarding the shoppers, Hall said she recognized many local people shopping here, but also saw a good deal of customers from out of town.

Asked if she noticed people paying more with cash instead of credit, Hall said she thinks credit is still a big factor in their business.

New in the business

Banks and Lesley Miller experienced their first Christmas season as new shop owners this year. They purchased Southern Trading and Pawn early in November from Edwin McCullers.

“It was full throttle from then on,” said Banks Miller, who reports sales were up from last year’s Christmas season, according to figures he has reviewed.

The big ticket items at Southern Trading were youth clothing, hunting and outdoor wear, long guns and archery gear.

Lesley Miller said on the gift side, the store sold a great deal of jewelry, especially from the Troll and Halia beads collections. Other big sellers were garden décor, Wood Wick candles, rustic décor and items from the collegiate room.

“People knew what they wanted and they got it. They would not settle for second best,” said Banks, who reported the season as being steady throughout with a huge rush of last-minute shoppers from Dec. 22-24. He also said it appeared people were using cash or bank cards much more frequently than credit cards.

Both Banks and Lesley expressed a love of the business and joy in dealing with the customers, whom they described as being “happy shoppers.”

The store had a drawing for a $250 gift certificate on Christmas Eve. Lesley said there were boxes at every cash register in the store and all were full. This helps them track the source of their customers.

“We were pleasantly surprised with the amount of local support,” said Lesley. “People have been supportive of Edwin, who has built a good business, and we are glad to see they are shopping locally,” she added. The business also draws shoppers from the surrounding areas, as the gift certificate winner was a Donalsonville resident.

The Millers will go to market this month to restock their gift shop items.

“This will be our first trip to market, and we are looking forward to seeing what is available,” said Lesley.

Clearly, this young couple, both of whom grew up in Bainbridge, is enjoying returning home to live and work and build a new family business.

A downtown businesses

An established family business that has thrived in Bainbridge for many years is Reeves Linens and Gifts, owned by Tom and Gloria Reeves.

Long the anchor for downtown business on the square, Reeves has seen a very good increase in Christmas sales over last year.

Tom Reeves said he is “very pleased” with the Christmas sales this year.

“From what I saw, people began shopping right after our open house in November, and it was wide open through Christmas. There were not any slow days,” said Reeves.

Their biggest selling items were the Brighton line and charms. He noticed more credit than cash sales.

Another downtown merchant on the square is Priscilla Whitaker, owner of Polka Dots and More. She is also pleased with her sales and said she has seen a lot of new customers from as far away as Dothan and Thomasville.

“There was lots of traffic,” she said.

Jim Smith moved the Book Nook off the square about a year ago. Now located at Five Corners, Smith said Book Nook sales in December were marvelous! “We had a great December, the best one ever.” He admits he was quite surprised by it.

He reports Bibles are selling like crazy and he is getting additional requests for Christian and church-related materials now that the Christian Book Store closed in Bainbridge. He said he will be increasing his stock to accommodate some of those requests.

Kres Jewelers owner Ken Markham said his sales were a little better than last year.

“We were very pleased and surprised. We went into the season not knowing what to expect, but it was good,” Markham said.

David White, a manager at Stones, reported a higher walk-in traffic count this year and the sale of Georgia Boots was higher than last year. The store has just begun to expand their inventory of children’s items and bikes. White said overall Stones sales were down some for the year due to the decline in construction.

Wal-Mart manager Roy Oliver said the Bainbridge Wal-Mart came out of December just slightly up from last year, and they worked very hard to get it.

Godwin Jewelers owner Ronnie Godwin said he had another banner year this Christmas.

“It almost broke last year’s record. I am very pleased with the sales for the entire year,” he explained.

His best-selling items, other than loose diamonds, were the Pandora line and the Evelon diamond knot collection. The Swiss Tag Heuer line of watches continue to be good sellers.

Godwin said he saw far less credit purchases, by a substantial amount. “People were using more debit payments than before.”

Another change he saw was that his rush came later in the form of last-minute shoppers.

“The second largest day in the store’s history was Christmas Eve,” said Godwin.

While Godwin did offer some extended hours for shopping, they did not stay open on Sundays in December this year, as they have in the past. Godwin said he felt it was important to his staff to have Sundays off.

Although Godwin said 90-plus percent of his business comes from Decatur County folks, he is attracting new customers from his television advertising campaigns directed to markets such as Tallahassee and Thomasville.