Many local merchants struggle through another sluggish shopping season

Ashland merchants are hoping a final burst of holiday shopping will add to their stores' bottom lines amid a sluggish year for retailers.

Shoppers such as Kymberly Valdez of Medford spent Wednesday taking advantage of sales throughout the downtown plaza.

"I like coming to Ashland once in a while to do some shopping," Valdez said. "This town has some really nice little boutique places."

Valdez often visits Ashland stores around the Christmas season, she said. This year, she was surprised to see fewer shoppers joining her on the sidewalks than in years past.

"It could definitely be more crowded," she said.

Shops such as Kixx women's clothing — despite the patronage of Valdez and others — are struggling to get people inside their doors, advertising sales on their window to lure in shoppers.

"Things are very slow," Kixx employee Joy Hawn said. "Thank goodness we have a good reputation and loyal customers in the community. But it's just slow right now."

Signs in front of the store announced sales on a variety of women's wear. But of all the items in the store, one item was selling faster than any other, and underscoring just how rough the economy has made life for Ashland merchants.

"Socks," Hawn said. "We are selling lots and lots of socks."

Normally a time for extravagant, spur-of-the-moment buys, this year shoppers are snubbing the fashionable for the economically feasible.

"One thing I've noticed is more people are shopping for themselves," Hawn said. "Instead of buying things for friends they're just getting what they need."

That trend doesn't bode well for stores like downtown music shop CD or Not CD, which doesn't sell items of necessity. Owner Lenny Goldberg said business has dropped off since the economy spiraled downward in the fall of 2008.

"We're doing about the same as last year," Goldberg said. "Last year was terrible, though, so that's not saying much."

Among his hot sellers are Susan Boyle's debut CD, "I Dreamed a Dream," which has held steady atop Billboard's Top 200 since hitting shelves last month.

"Her CD is selling really well, as well as some other CDs and movies," Goldberg said. But even with the British sensation jumping off shelves, other merchandise has been slow to sell — though Hanukkah provided a temporary boon for his business.

"We sold a lot of Hanukkah candles. Safeway didn't sell them this year, so we got some people for that," Goldberg said.

Reports from the U.S. Commerce Department and the National Retail Federation show national consumer confidence is on the rise. But that confidence is not translating into additional revenue, as the average American has spent $30 less on holiday shopping this year than last.

Southern Oregon University junior Monika Carstensen decided she would make her own Christmas presents this year. Leaving the downtown knitting store Webster's with a bag full of colorful yarn, she said she made a commitment to cut back on costs this holiday season.

"Last year I bought clothes for Christmas and spent, like, $500," she said. "It's crazy thinking about how much I spent."

She said this year would be different.

"I'm going to make hats for my friends. I should have enough (yarn) to knit five hats, and it only cost me $30."

Shoppers Wednesday said they were surprised to find good deals so close to Christmas. Coz Costantino took advantage of the sales to make good on some last-minute shopping for his wife.

"It seems like a good time to get some odds and ends," Costantino said. "Things have been really fairly priced from what I've seen."

Most shop owners reported struggling just to break even. But others said the holidays were merely boosting what had already been a surprisingly plentiful year.

"We're really doing very well," said Pam Hammond of Paddington Station.

Hammond said her store bucked the downward trend by diversifying inventory, getting rid of slow-selling items and stocking up on hot-sellers from retailers around the country.

"Women's accessories, scarves and kitchenware are what's working best for us. Toys are doing excellent, too," she said. "We've really worked to have value in our pricing, and mix up our products. And because of that we've just had a wonderful reception from the community."

Elon Glucklich is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Contact him at eglucklich@gmail.com.

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