Slow holiday shopping for Ashland's retailers

Christmas was different this year.

As the economy limped along, the recession's victims were many. Ashland's merchants and shoppers were affected, proclaiming slower sales, spending hesitation and a general not-the-same-as-last-year feeling. This season also threw an unexpected curve ball in the form of snow during the final week of shopping.

"Business was slow during the bad weather," said Conny Shadel of Bug-A-Boo on North Main Street. "In December, every day is a good day for business, so the weather had to be the main reason."

Shadel maintains that sales this season are down "a little bit," but overall business has been good.

"This year was not as bad as they made it out to be," said Shadel. "Yeah, sales are slower, but we thought it was going to be worse."

In some respects, Ashland's merchants, many of whom are in the specialty/boutique niche, have an advantage in tough economic times. These advantages come in the form of loyal customers and the specialty niche they have created.

This Christmas season was business as usual for Shadel, with no early sales or cuts in advertising. Shadel said the products she sells — high-quality toys and children's clothing — are the secrets of the store's success, a quality over quantity approach.

"Most of my clientele buy one or two good toys that are higher priced, but they know that their children will get much more out of them," Shadel said. "Many of these toys are educational, especially the baby toys, and people won't skimp on things like that."

Sales in children's clothing were the downer this year at Bug-A-Boo, but the overall cheer of the holiday season was evident.

"The fact that we are a children's store affects the clientele," said Shadel. "Even if times are bad, they don't want to make it appear so. Other areas may suffer, but not for the children."

Christmas nostalgia was alive and well at Unicorn Gifts and Toys on North Second Street. Twenty-five theme-decorated trees fill the shop in a holiday wonderland fashion, drawing customers back for the past 24 years. Although sales were down, the holiday spirit was present.

"People come here for the nostalgia, our place really cheered people up," said Marilyn McCurry of the Unicorn. "We are fortunate to have the displays that we do."

McCurry said she feels that everyone is "doing their best" this year, a fact the store owner kept in mind when trying to be "as normal as possible" despite the difficulties of the season.

"Many people only bought one ornament this year, when they used to purchase more," McCurry said.

McCurry noted a fact of specialty retail: The Christmas season is purchased on speculation.

"You buy your Christmas stock in January, so it's really hard to gauge," McCurry said. "We don't just buy, we have to gamble and guess."

Unicorn's most popular item, Playmobile, is a high-quality toy line that is released three times a year, so purchases have to be made prior to the release dates. In Ashland, Unicorn has the exclusive on Playmobile, and was fortunate to be able to keep up with the displays and demand.

A fact shared by other retailers is that lack of business this year will show in next year's stock and displays.

Nathan Thompson of Red's Threads on East Main Street said he believes a "mental recession" may be behind the retail woes.

"A lot of people are freaking out this year," said Thompson. "They need to relax and spend, it will all work out. We have a new president and a new start."

Thompson has heard many customers mentioning the tight money situation, group giving or pulling names from a hat, but believes it really wasn't much different, mostly due to Red's unique garments.

"We are lucky because of the product we sell, hand-made rayon batiki garments from Indonesia and Bali," said Thompson. "We have a sort of monopoly on them, and our main season isn't Christmas — it's spring and summer."

The snowy weather during the week before Christmas affected sales. McCurry said she believes it kept many of the out-of-town shoppers away. At Red's Threads, sales, as well as the annual in-store Christmas bash, suffered.

Friends and family night at Red's, a customer appreciation affair, was markedly different this year. Held the Thursday before Christmas, it was a night of heavy snow. The party was fully catered — wine, cider, hors-d'eouvres — and only two people showed for what is usually a packed house.

"It worked out alright. The two people that showed were two of our best customers," said Thompson. "We ended up having fun, we treated them like VIPs. They had the run of the store and we catered to them."

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