Despite Black Friday hoopla, a ho-hum season for Maryland retailers -- Gazette.Net


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Retailers experienced some unexpected ups and downs throughout December’s shopping season, with some merchants reporting strong sales and others feeling the post-holiday blues.

“The week of Thanksgiving, things were pretty strong so most people felt pretty good going into the shopping season,” said Patrick Donoho, president of the Maryland Retailers Association.

But Donoho said sales were soft for several weeks last month across all categories, even groceries. Activity picked up in the week ending Dec. 22, just before Christmas, which was an extra weekend shoppers did not have last year, when Christmas fell on a Sunday.

National retail sales for the week before Christmas were up 39.1 percent from the previous week but down 2.5 percent from the same week in 2011, according to retail analyst ShopperTrak in Chicago. Donoho said his trade group has not yet heard much about that week, but he suspects Maryland’s sales tracked lower than the national figures.

Donoho blamed the soft sales on two factors: more people shopping online and low consumer confidence. The U.S. Consumer Confidence index fell to 65.1 last month from 71.5 in November, which Donoho said might have related to worries over the “fiscal cliff.”

“I don’t think sales were in the negatives, but they may have been flat,” he said.

Metamorphosis Boutique, a fashion and accessories store in Silver Spring experienced a “very disappointing” month compared with 2011, said owner Sharon Bullock.

“We expected a lot better. We doubled our sales [in 2011]. This year, the traffic was slower and people were spending less,” Bullock said. “People were just holding on, not knowing what would happen with the fiscal cliff. Being a speciality store, more people tend to spend money on themselves. They weren’t doing that this time.”

Mandy Dewease, store manager at Kmart at the Kentlands in Gaithersburg, said her store had a fairly good December.

“We had a few new customers,” she said. “There was nothing major we felt we could have done better, although you always want to improve.”

Dewease said toys were the major sellers, with Kmart’s reward program contributing to sales.

Over at the Mall at Prince George’s in Hyattsville, sales were mixed among retailers, said mall spokeswoman Victoria Clark.

“Just from the traffic and bags in customer hands, we had a lot of last-minute shoppers. Whether that converts into sales remains to be seen,” she said.

Clark also said the warmer weather throughout December, with the mercury approaching 60 degrees some days, may have deterred consumers from purchasing warm clothing. The general public mood may have also been down due to the “shocking” shootings being reported throughout the country, including the shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school.

“All of these things have an impact on retail sales,” Clark said. “I have my fingers crossed, but those who were more promotional toward the end will probably do better.”

Some stores did report a relatively uplifting December.

“We did great. We’re up for the year and the month, even with one snow day. We’re happy to be able to say that,” said Elaine Babylon, a saleswoman with Dancing Bear Toys & Gifts in Frederick.

Ginger, a clothing and gift shop in Bethesda, also did better than last year, said manager Gillian Market. She explained part of this may be due to the store selling gift products for the first year.

Market said sales were stronger toward the end of the month, but some days were “dead.”

Auto dealers seemed to have had better luck last month.

Sales were up at Darcars Automotive Group locations, said owner Tamara K. Darvish, attributing the growth to incentives such as low interest rates and the absence of the stress brought on by the presidential election campaign. Darcars has its headquarters in Silver Spring.

Criswell Automotive of Gaithersburg also experienced a better month than it expected, said marketing director Neil Kopit.

He said many shoppers take advantage of end-of-the-year tax credits, especially with hybrid cars such as the Chevrolet Volt.

“We closed strong,” Kopit said.

Donoho pointed out that the holiday shopping season continues into January, when people are cashing in gift cards or seeking bargains.

lrobbins@gazette.net