Walla Walla stores expect strong early turnout

National surveys, however, indicate this year’s holiday spending could be down slightly on average as holiday shoppers show unease with the economy.

Sylvia Moya looks for audio books for her preschool students at Books and Games Company. "It's easier for my students to go to sleep listening to audio books."

Sylvia Moya looks for audio books for her preschool students at Books and Games Company. "It's easier for my students to go to sleep listening to audio books." Photo by Michael Lopez.

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If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’ve probably already made a holiday purchase or three.

With the shortest holiday shopping season in more than a decade, thanks to a late-November Thanksgiving, the Early Birds were in full force a week or two before Thanksgiving, local retailers say.

“We’ve tried to hold back bringing out the Christmas items until Thanksgiving, but we’ve had so many people asking,” said Dianne Mosher, gifts manager at downtown Walla Walla bookstore Book & Game Co.

The request for Christmas cards was the first indication of a stretched-out shopping season.

“I had to bring them out much sooner than I had anticipated because people were asking for them,” she said.

The early kickoff may be a sign of how consumers are planning better for their budgets in the face of continued economic uncertainty.

The National Retail Federation said Monday that a record number of consumers went shopping over the four-day Thanksgiving weekend, according to The Associated Press. However, the average amount spent by each shopper fell compared with the same period last year, the first decline since the trade group began tracking the figures in 2006.

According to a National Retail Federation survey, consumers plan to spend slightly less this year on holiday shopping than last year. They’re also spreading out their shopping in order to stretch their budgets.

The average consumer responding to the survey will spend $737.95 on gifts, décor, greeting cards and more. That’s 2 percent less than the $752.24 actually spent last year.

“Though the foundation for solid holiday season growth exists, Americans are questioning the stability of our economy, our government and their own finances,” said NRF President and Chief Executive Officer Matthew Shay, in an announcement. “We expect consumers to set a modest budget for gifts and other holiday-related purchases as they wait and see what will become of the U.S. economy in the coming months.”

Although local merchants say Walla Walla is rarely in step with national predictions and trends, shoppers appeared to have the same approach downtown.

“Typically it starts getting slow here at the shop in October and then in November it stays fairly busy, but this year is the crazy opposite,” said Wild Walla Walla Wine Woman shop owner Catie McIntyre Walker. “October kept me busy, but November was slow to kick off.“

From this point on she expects the Second Avenue store to be busy, particularly with Holiday Barrel Tasting Weekend the first weekend of December and preparations for holiday parties and dinners.

The steady traffic is a welcome change for business owners who say 2013 has otherwise been flat.

McIntyre Walker said she’s had steady growth each year she’s been at the spot. But 2013 has been the toughest so far, she said. Although tourism has been strong and more Whitman College parents are finding their way into the shop, the implementation of liquor privatization hit the business. Suppliers relied upon for some of the more unique wines and beers are swamped by the increased work, she said. It’s made it more difficult to connect regularly.

Around the corner at Main Street toy store Inland Octopus, owner Bob Catsiff said his 5 percent growth projection for the year had fallen relatively flat instead.

But the sight of early shoppers two weeks before Thanksgiving was feeding optimism for ending the year on a high note.

Dollars per transaction were up significantly leading into the holiday, he said.

“It’s a feeling of how people are shopping,” he said. “The way they present themselves at the cash register. Here’s the money, and I’m going to keep going.”

Downtown retailers have been working on various initiatives to remind people about local shopping options.

The recent opening of Real Deals Home Decor on Colville Street gave that stretch full occupancy for the first time in decades. Jessica Valentine Whiteside, owner of Door Number Two — just a hop away — planned to promote the busy Colville corridor as an unexpected downtown attraction.

Book & Game Co. has scheduled weekly $20 giveaways leading up to the holiday as a promotion, plus its dice sale Friday and Saturday evenings. Guests can roll to determine their discount.

“Self-gifting” is where cutbacks in shopping budgets are anticipated, say retail experts.

According to the National Retail Federation, the biggest portion of shoppers’ budgets will go toward gifts for family members. The average person plans to spend $415.50 on family, down slightly from actual spending of $423.36 spent last year.

“Consumers have had years of practice when it comes to managing tight budgets while still spending on items they need to, whether it be gifts or groceries for the family,” said Pam Goodfellow, director of survey firm Proper Insights & Analytics. “Retailers can expect to see practical and refined attitudes from their customers this holiday season as families make thoughtful decisions about what they need to buy and what they can pass on.”

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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