Where’s the Holiday Rush?

The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree one day before its December 2 lighting. | MICHAEL SHIREY
The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree one day before its December 2 lighting. | MICHAEL SHIREY

BY JACKSON CHEN | Whipsawed by the door-busting madness of Black Friday and the customer comforts of online shopping on Cyber Monday, local businesses on the Upper East and West Sides are trying to figure out where they belong in the mix.

As part of a worldwide trend, Black Friday numbers have been on the decline, with customers opting for online sales and month-long in-store promotions leading up to Christmas. According to ShopperTrak, a global consumer analytics company, Black Friday 2015 brought in $10.2 billion in sales, which is an estimated 11.9 percent decrease from 2014’s $11.6 billion.

Away from the Midtown crowds of eager shoppers, the quieter neighborhoods uptown have reluctantly joined in offering Black Friday deals. But as the big day’s numbers are slowly shrinking, local businesses are quick to point out that the post-Thanksgiving shopping holiday has never had a huge impact on them.

And with a newer shopping holiday dedicated to them — Small Business Saturday — many local store owners have a dismissive view, saying the day is more of a token gesture than an impactful driver of sales.

“Saturday was actually way down,” said Jennifer Bergman, owner of West Side Kids on Amsterdam Avenue, of sales. “It didn’t seem like Small Business Saturday had as much of an effect as it did in the last couple of years.”

Bergman acknowledged that the store didn’t actively promote the day this year, explaining that Amex’s credit card rates are the most expensive brunt for the store to bear. With more Small Business Saturday promotion come more Amex shoppers, which can have a meaningful negative impact for Bergman’s family-owned toy store.

Outside of Small Business Saturday, the owner said the toy store wasn’t really busy during the Thanksgiving weekend, including Black Friday. Being a local store, Bergman said they don’t offer the type of drastic deals offered in mall stores nationwide.

Instead, West Side Kids enjoys the largest volume of customers in the weekends leading up to Christmas, with Saturday, December 19 expected to be the busiest, according to Bergman.

Despite what store owners describe as the minimal benefits of the small business push, the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce still works to promote the “Shop Local, Shop Small” mantra.

According to the chamber’s projects coordinator Kevin Dinh, about a dozen local businesses reached out to the chamber to be included in Amex’s Small Business Saturday for 2015. On top of that number, Dinh said, another 30 to 35 stores owners on the Upper East and West Sides had voiced receptiveness to the idea when the chamber surveyed the area.

Dinh acknowledged that results have proved something of a mixed bag, with some past participants explaining they had higher expectations for the initiative than they achieved and have become hesitant to re-up for another year.

West Side Kids on Amsterdam Avenue at 84th Street. | FACEBOOK.COM
West Side Kids on Amsterdam Avenue at 84th Street. | FACEBOOK.COM

Small Business Saturday’s ho-hum reception in Manhattan seems out of step with the national trend. Amex and the National Federation of Independent Business released statistics showing that spending across the US hit $16.2 billion on Saturday, a 14 percent increase from 2014’s $14.3 billion. (Comparing these numbers to the Black Friday figures above should be done with a measure of caution, since the two tallies come from different sources.)

The picture looks a lot different on the sales floors of local stores.

For Town Shop, a lingerie store on the Upper West Side, Small Business Saturday gave them a modest bump in sales.

“I don’t think it’s hugely different,” said Danny Koch, owner of Town Shop, of the Saturday sales. “It seems to me that we actually did a little bit better with Amex [customers] this year than last, maybe 10 percent better.”

In 2012, Amex offered a statement credit for the first $25 in Small Business Saturday purchases; last year the incentive was up to three credits of $10 each on separate purchases. There was no similar offer this year. Instead, Amex focused more on offering marketing resources to the store owners that participated, according to Amex’s Small Business Saturday spokesperson Nicole Leinbach Reyhle.

Despite pulling the customer credit program, Reyhle said Amex had the most successful Small Business Saturday yet by providing marketing support to participating businesses and increasing the visibility and branding of the day generally.

Koch didn’t think that the lack of customer statement credits necessarily deterred shoppers, but he acknowledged that offering the credit again could have increased store revenues.

Koch explained he was originally prompted to introduce Black Friday discounts in response to customer expectations that they would be available. Over the several years the lingerie store has taken that approach, he said, the store has seen a “nice bump in business.”

The store’s main cash cow this year, however, has been its website, Koch said.

“We’re a little aggressive on our website, too,” he said of the store’s newly redesigned site. “It’s very exciting to see the newer website we just built work so effectively and see so many customers visit.”

The updated website, Koch said, is linked to his iPad, which repeatedly chimed out that much sought-after “ka-ching” sound effect as sales mounted over the weekend.

The Town Shop on Broadway at 82nd Street. | FACEBOOK.COM
The Town Shop on Broadway at 82nd Street. | FACEBOOK.COM

Koch chalks the increased web sales up to the convenience of the Internet in helping his customers not miss a weekend deal. Thanksgiving weekend is not the make or break moment for the Town Shop that it is typically described as in retail, but Koch said, “It’s certainly a way we start to take the temperature of what’s going to happen over the next year.”

Other stores reported more disappointing omens in the first big weekend of holiday shopping.

“We’ve done this from the beginning,” said Robert Schwartz, said of Small Business Saturday. “Last year was extremely disappointing.”

Schwartz is CEO of Eneslow, a footwear company that employs pedorthists, experts in custom-fitting shoes and insoles for therapeutic benefits. Of Eneslow’s two Manhattan and one Queens locations, Schwartz said, the Saturday reports showed his Upper East Side branch on Second Avenue had steady traffic and decent sales. His main store in Midtown, however, had a “very mediocre day, to say the least, from looking at numbers.”

Schwartz said retail’s Thanksgiving weekend focus on super sales has always been a burden for small business owners. Even though Schwartz offered a $20 gift card for every $150 spent in his stores, he couldn’t compete with the big-box businesses that, he said, were “giving away their stores” with the large price markdowns.

“The reality is Small Business Saturday in New York City does not embrace, support, advocate [small businesses], Schwartz said. “This is an epidemic that’s not going to go away.”

Schwartz is fortunate, however, that his custom business is needs-based, so he has a loyal following among about 80 percent of his shoppers. Beyond that, however, his customer traffic is focused on ready-made solutions for people with foot problems. There, he said, he faces a lot of competition from online alternatives.

“New Yorkers are not loyal to their local merchants at all,” Schwartz said. “They’re happy to stay in their underwear and shop online and never leave their apartments.”

But for owners like Bergman, the quietness on Thanksgiving weekend was nothing new and the fact that Black Friday “was not a busy day for us at all” was not a concern.

She expects to be swamped with customers starting this coming weekend, with the start of Chanukah on December 6 coupled with the swelling flood of Christmas shopping.

“This weekend will be very crazy because Chanukah starts,” Bergman said. “Then the Saturday before Christmas is always the busiest day of the year.”

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