LI Retailers Prepare for Holiday Shopping Season

left: fred rudia behind the counter of his port jefferson boutique, reruns. right: a bird’s eye view of huntingon’s book revue, which will compete with the chains, as well as the kindle, this holiday season.
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A bird’s eye view of Huntingon’s Book Revue, which will compete with the chains, as well as the kindle, this holiday season.

Along a leaf-littered side street in the heart of bucolic Port Jefferson is Reruns, a charming local boutique that has been in business at this location for 35 years. The shop possesses an irresistible small-town charm juxtaposed by a chic, contemporary allure. The storefront is nestled into the brick and stone of a structure that has weathered the perils of many seasons past. A seemingly demure entity from the outside, with a basement entrance that’s hard not to miss, Reruns is something of a hidden treasure in a town full of such quaint retailers.

In the office of his rarely empty store, Fred Rudia, co-owner of Reruns, is doing paperwork, as Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” faintly resonates from beyond the open door of his office. The walls of his workplace refuge are adorned with a collage of Polaroid-like images: scattered glimpses into Rudia’s personal passions—passions that go beyond the success of his boutique, yet inextricably depend upon it.

“No, no discounts,” he asserts, when asked of his plan for the fast-approaching holiday season. “When you have a business, you know your market. Some markets want discounts. They demand discounts. My customer doesn’t ask for that; they come in, they like what we have, we give great service, they make purchases.” Upon asking Rudia about his expectations for the holiday season, he is only slightly less emphatic.

“I’m optimistic,” he says. “I’d rather think positively than worry and stress myself out.”

“Optimism” is a commonly used term among retailers right now—in fact, every business owner interviewed for this story used that word when asked about their expectations for the 2011 holiday season. The question remains as to whether this optimism is largely based on the results of number crunching, statistics and past percentages, or the common shred of faith we have in our own prosperity as well as that of our country. As the walls grow and the gap between classes continues to widen, it’s important now more than ever for retailers to identify their market and ultimately choose one that is most likely to give them the fiscal results they require in order to keep their doors open. But the word “choice” is really an unfair summation of what small and independent retailers are expected to do in today’s economic climate, because they rarely have the freedom to make one.

This season, the state of the economy ultimately depends on two types of consumers: the wealthy shopper who will keep a small retailer like Reruns thriving for more than three decades, and the price-conscious consumer, who requires discounts, guaranteed availability and early openings in order to bring home that 50-inch flat screen for the holidays. This is the economy in which both retailer and consumer are adjusting, and its growth is dependent on both parties working together.

Many stores, as Rudia stated, “know their market,” and for some, that market is most profitable when targeted toward a wealthier consumer, one who doesn’t require a sale rack, and one who has fairly consistent funds for the holiday season and year-round spending. That’s not a trend limited to Long Island: Wal-Mart’s 2011 third-quarter profits fell 2.9 percent from last year, while Saks Fifth Avenue’s revenue had jumped 5 percent from the same quarter in 2010.

Similarly to Reruns, Zachary’s Fine Jewelry in Huntington is a business that credits its success to the consumer who is able to help them sustain it. Zachary’s is a family-owned jewelry store, displaying gems so vibrant shoppers’ eyes widen just to comprehend the glass-encased beauty. The store itself is lit with intention, and its surfaces and merchandise glimmer, as though every handmade item has somehow remained untouched in its creation.

“We are the newest jeweler in this area; we opened the store in 2008,” says Zachary’s owner, May Dulgerian. “Thank god, the sales have been going up steadily since then, but for us it’s not only about the economy, it’s about building a clientele.”

Given that the fine jewelry store does not run holiday promotions, it is highly dependent on community allegiance and is also dependent on expenditures made by a wealthier consumer. Dulgerian expresses that the store won’t be adjusting their prices for the holidays, and it seems logical simply because they don’t need to.
Dulgerian and her daughter Lauren point to one of their displays, which comprises only a small fraction of the store’s jewelry collection and wherein the less extravagant pieces reside.

“It’s been a steady rise in business, which is why we’ve brought in a lot of new merchandise, so we can give people different choices,” says May, in a sincerely regrettable tone adding, “and because we know not everyone can purchase a $2,000 piece.”

Indeed, their decision to include more affordable pieces doesn’t seem to be driven by profitability, but rather as a gesture made by a family who understands what it’s like to struggle, or to be unable to give a loved one something that glistens for the holidays. Although there is no shortage of small businesses that cater to a more affluent consumer, there are still those who are not ready, willing, or able to make a choice between marketing themselves toward the rich and arguably the so-called “99 percent.”

Huntington’s Milk & Honey is an eclectic mix of clothing, accessories and prices with a décor and sense of style that can lure in the likes of most any shopper. The store’s owner, Christina Essabba, was dividing her attention among two customers and this reporter on a recent visit, proving immediately not only to be accessible but likable. Once Essaba finished educating a customer on faux leather, she stated:

“We’ll be starting off the season with a Black Friday sale that we’ll be announcing on our Facebook and probably extend through the end of December. We have a lot of new customers who I think we won over this past year and we’re hoping they come back in.”

For many other businesses without Milk & Honey’s mixed merchandise and varying prices, their products do the heavy retail lifting for them without the need for excessive advertising, discounts, consumer interaction or promotions.  Essabba says her store relies on a sense of the culture and community for revenue.

Smaller retailers, though, are not the only ones preparing for the holiday shopping season, which will ideally prove to be more lucrative than the last one. As a particularly threatening adversary to small downtown retailers, Long Island’s malls and national chain stores will as usual see the majority of crowds this holiday season.

Les Morris, from Simon Property Groups, owners of Long Island’s Roosevelt Field Mall, Walt Whitman Mall and Smith Haven Mall just to name a few, expects as much:

“The holidays are a magical time for a lot of reasons, and I think the mall is a shopping environment that lends itself very well to that,” he says. With the convenience and accessibility offered by LI’s malls, the integration and explosion of media have given those businesses enormous leverage, especially with regard to advertising sales or coupons.

“Last year, I think the big theme for us was the integration of digital media with the holiday season,” Morris continues. “We have furthered that this year: Now all of our malls have Facebook pages and Twitter pages that are constantly updated.”

In addition to that, large corporations use technology to attract customers in countless new ways. Amazon, for instance, offers a smartphone application that identifies an item you’ve snapped a photo of, presents its own price for the same item, and then offers the convenience of buying it directly from the application.

A market getting hit hard, not only by the economy but also by the technologies that eliminate the necessity for them, is book stores. This will be the first Christmas season in nearly two decades in which Long Islanders will not have a Borders Books & Music to browse. Independent booksellers, such as Book Revue in Huntington, continue to be community favorites, but with the growing popularity of Kindles, iPads and e-books, Book Revue may soon be among the last of its kind. The Huntington store is located in a cavernously large space. Its air thick with the smell of turned pages and faded ink, and there is a sense of nostalgia for something vintage and romantic, but also for something lost.

Robert Klein, co-owner of Book Revue, acknowledges the threat of digitalized reading.

“Kindle is taking a big bite, Amazon is taking a big bite, but the community supports us,” he says. “What Amazon and e-books have done has made it difficult to sell new books for a lesser price; you just can’t do it anymore.”
Although Klein admits “the book business is not what it used to be,” he believes this year’s holiday season will be better than the last.

To be a true competitor for this year’s holiday season, the most valuable promotional strategy for boosting sales is to open earlier, guarantee merchandise and most importantly, discount more and sooner, both in store and out.  According to accounting agency BDO’s US forecast of Black Friday sales, “lower projections for Black Friday and Cyber Monday are to be expected as intense competition in the sector has retailers planning big discounts earlier in the season… Seventy-eight percent of [chief marketing officers] say they expect to see more discounts and promotions overall this holiday season compared to last year.”

As one of this year’s top corporate contenders, Best Buy is offering both sales and extended hours to maximize the holiday rush. The chain seems to appeal predominantly to the blue-collar consumer that is, one who depends on Black Friday discounts to fulfill the holiday wish lists of loved ones.

“Between 100-120 stores are opening up at midnight this year as opposed to 5 a.m.,” explains Peter Conway, general manager of Best Buy’s Westbury location. “I’ll be here at 6 p.m. Thanksgiving night outside with my customers.”

He’ll be joining the Black Friday race to open earliest against fellow big box stores Target and Wal-Mart.
For his part, Reruns’ Rudia is encouraged—he’s been doing this for three and a half decades, and he sees reason for hope.

“Yes,” he says, reiterating his upbeat outlook. “I think it’s going to be better.”