Christmas Buying Trends
Laurie Rudd -- Casual Living, July 23, 2010
Inside Stat's three California stores, holiday displays incorporate original ornaments by Stat's Designer Abbas Sorbi.
For approximately one third of the casual ranks, seasonality has resulted in the creation of an even more challenging seasonal business - a Christmas or holiday division. With this counter-seasonal entity, retailers are challenged by not only an extremely narrow two-month focus, but an explosion in inventory and a selling cycle that requires, if lucky, the complete depletion of inventory. This is counter-seasonality for the hearty.
For many, a holiday operation has become a recognized part of their business mix for decades. "The main reason why Christmas is in our store is to bring customers during a time of year that would be very slow," said Terry Williams, manager of casual furniture and gift/holiday for Neighbors Home and Garden, Hellertown, Pa. "Our customers look forward to seeing what new themes and merchandise we have for that year. And it provides our employees with work so that they do not have to be laid off as soon." Full of challenges and triumphs, a holiday division is a welcome partner to casual survival.
‘Tis the Season
Although there are casual retailers that maintain holiday/Christmas merchandise year-round, for the majority, the season begins in early to mid-October and ends hopefully prior to January markdowns.
"The most challenging aspect is merchandise commitments need to be done by the end of April, and it is always a gamble with knowing what the economy is going to be in the 4th quarter," said Jeff Connit, Today's Patio, Scottsdale, Ariz. "Ninety-eight percent of what we buy for the holidays is a one-shot order with 50% of the Christmas business done in three to four weeks. We have to take the position that to be profitable, we need to be sold out as soon as possible."
Unlike mass retailers that pull all reference to outdoor when Labor Day hits, the year-round continuation of casual merchandise despite the arrival of holiday merchandise is common for specialty retailers.
"Casual furniture is still available (after the holiday section opens)," said Robert Macchia, owner, Q Garden Center, Milford, Conn. "We have customers that buy outdoor furniture for Christmas gifts."
Deck the Halls
Whether occupying 100% or less than 25%, the amount of real estate a holiday section inhabits equates to a considerable commitment in time and talent for any outdoor retailer.
"We have two facilities that include holiday, each carries casual or home decor during the majority of the year and holiday for approximately two and a half months," said Judy Singleton, owner, Tropic Aire Patio Gallery, West Columbia, S.C.
This seasonal transition from casual to holiday involves an entire month in which Singleton and her staff close one facility to completely install the holiday merchandise.
"In the 23 years we have been carrying holiday, we have sold all categories," Singleton said. "A major emphasis is on our tree forest, in which we show trees that are not decorated so that the buyers can see what they will look like."
Each of Singleton's locations also exhibits numerous theme trees that are decorated heavily with ornaments. Theme trees are a staple of most holiday retailers.
In the creation of holiday wonderlands, a great amount of time and effort is required. This is not only in the set up, but in the selection of merchandise as well. From multiple days to multiple weeks, a considerable amount of time is spent reviewing holiday product and showrooms to make the final purchasing decisions.
For Williams, who attends the Atlanta gift show in January, the challenge is in the volume. "For one theme tree, we may purchase from four to five different vendors," Williams said. "It takes us six days to work the entire show."
For Abbas Sorbi, Pasadena store manager, designer and buyer for Stat's Home Decor in California, the process encompasses a full month. "We purchase direct from overseas manufacturers," Sorbi said. "We go in January to the winter markets in Hong Kong and China and visit factories and showrooms for an entire month. There is a lot more selection there and we are able to work with factories on our own designs and colorations."
For those purchasing stateside, Atlanta is the primary buying location. "Our (holiday) buyers keep a pulse on Christmas markets by walking the halls of Atlanta and viewing the showrooms that grab onto trends," said Q Garden's Macchia.
At Tropic Aire Patio Gallery, theme areas require designers to tap multiple vendors to create the perfect looks.
Retailers are guardedly optimistic about the 2010 holiday season. Some point to the winter trade shows for clues. Based on his overseas buying, Sorbi is optimistic as a result of seeing greater traffic and buying at the shows compared to the previous two years.
"Last year was a safe year; 90% of our business was traditional and safe merchandise," Sorbi said. "Everyone was looking for affordable merchandise with a unique look."
For Today's Patio, Connit shares that qualified optimism for the season. "We order much less merchandise up front in these interesting economic times than we did even two to three years ago," Connit said. "We looked for items for home decor with an emphasis on functional items that can actually be used year-round."
This desire to play it safe with merchandise is coupled with a return to traditional styles in decorating.
"When it comes to Christmas, tradition is still No. 1," Arizona-based Connit said.
Singleton shared the same view, saying, "We are very traditional in South Carolina."
Yet, an eye for tradition does not mean buyers are not looking for what's new that will bring consumers in this season. For some it is the availability of larger options.
"We are seeing a trend in larger artificial trees," Sorbi said. "Some are as large as 27 feet, and also there are larger ornaments to accommodate these trees."
Pre-lit trees remain a retail favorite and the more lighting the better. "We now order pre-lit trees by the container load and even yet, our designers can add lighting to the trees if it is not as heavy as the customer wants," Singleton said.
Although artificial trees have seen tremendous improvements in reality over the years, for some retailers, live trees fill their holiday season. "The greatest part of our holiday business is done in cut trees," Williams said. "Last season we sold over 300 cut trees. We do very little in artificial trees; this is not our focus."
Color for this holiday season is predicted to echo the traditional and safe trend with red and green as the primary choice. To mix it up, red is partnered with a variety of greens from olive to chartreuse.
"Shades of brown look to be a theme this year," Williams said. "We will have one champagne and teal tree; however, red and green and traditional is still the primary color theme. In some areas of the country, they can be trendier; we stay very traditional with gold, burgundies, red and green."
Metallic tones are seen as a safe choice for Sorbi's stores also. "I work with the factories to create the product in the colors I want," Sorbi said. "The focus continues to be on traditional and elegance with silver and gold and white. I do create interest by adding modern color but in only 10% of our inventory."
From trends to trees, creating a successful holiday/Christmas section can be challenging. But, the skills needed to handle the hyper seasonality may be a perfect fit for casual retailers who know seasonal retailing all too well.
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