By Katrina Lewis and Mimi MacCowatt
A large Christmas wreath, with red ribbon and silver lights tucked in its green needles, hangs above the entry of Hess & Co. Jewelers. Two evergreen trees stand tall in the front windows, and painted nutcrackers sit nestled in garland atop of display cases of jewelry.
“This year is the fastest we’ve put [our decorations] up,” said owner Eddie Clowser. “We practice all year to get busy for five weeks.”
Clowser said sales from the holiday season make up 40 percent of annual business for his Lexington, Va. shop. And his store, like many in the historic downtown, have greater competition than ever in fighting for shoppers’ wallets this holiday season.
Deloitte forecasts e-commerce sales will top $110 billion this holiday season, a rise of 18 to 21 percent from 2016 online sales. SunTrust Robinson Humphrey said the upcoming holiday season should be “record-breaking” for tech giant Amazon.
Small businesses feel the pressure of online and big-box retailers
And right down N. Lee Highway, Main Street shops can find another competitor in Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. shares reached a record high of $95.94 earlier this month after releasing third quarter earnings that crushed analysts’ expectations.
Downtown stores across the board are feeling the effects of big-box retailers and the rise of e-commerce, dominated by Amazon. Pappagallo manager Jan Perkins now sits in a chair at the front of the apparel store instead of standing behind the counter waiting to tend to customers.
“We just don’t get college students in here like we used to,” Perkins said.
Will downtown’s historical charm be able to combat the “Amazon effect” this holiday shopping season?
To compete, Lexington shops are framing shopping during the holidays to be more than just purchasing gifts.
It’s all about the experience
Clowser said it isn’t just the Christmas decorations that attract customers to his jewelry shop.
“We strive hard to give our customers an experience…instead of being [the] run through the cattle process you see in malls or big-box [retailers],” Clowser said.
Cheese to You owner Meg Hall said she thinks customers appreciate the experience of shopping at smaller shops.
“People care more than ever before about what they’re consuming; it’s a huge trend,” Hall said.
“People care more than ever before about what they’re consuming; it’s a huge trend,” Hall said. “All of us have a lot of things. I’m selling the experience.”
Books & Co. owner Anna-Lisa Fitzgerald is also capitalizing on what differentiates her book and toy store from big-box and online retailers this season.
“The whole purpose of brick and mortar is to feel and touch the merchandise, so that is how we promote,” Fitzgerald said.
Her sales approach is twofold to please both kids and their parents.
For four-year-old Talia, it’s about being able to come in and play with the toys—which she does at least every other week. Talia said she is asking for a scooter from the store for Christmas. For her parents, Books & Co. offers seasonal discounts and redeemable ads in local newspapers.
Small businesses struggle in today’s commerce climate
Fitzgerald said she needs this holiday to be strong because more than 25 percent of the store’s annual revenue comes from November and December, and her revenue estimate is already at the bare minimum that the store needs to survive.
And Fitzgerald’s story isn’t unique. Main Street Lexington board of directors President Jamie Goodin said he gives small retailers a lot credit for continuing to do what they do in today’s business climate.
“To be a small retailer nowadays, other than working in restaurants, is like the riskiest thing you can do,” Goodin said. “I’ve heard horror stories from retailers about how hard it is to get people in the door, to pay for advertising on a shoestring budget.”
Main Street Lexington is a part of the national Main Street organization that works to promote shopping locally for the experience it has to offer. For Goodin, holiday shopping is no exception.
“I think people should know that the experience itself is a lot more rich—you see people you know, you smell the smells, feel the sensation of being cold and walking into a warm store,” he said.
“I think people should know that the experience itself is a lot more rich—you see people you know, you smell the smells, feel the sensation of being cold and walking into a warm store,” Goodin said.
On Nov. 25, Main Street Lexington started a shopping game called Love Lexington Lotto to encourage shoppers to visit all of the participating stores downtown this holiday season. Shoppers collect stamps from each store, submit their completed scorecards and are then entered in a drawing to win a $1,000 downtown shopping spree.
“It’s not about ‘I’m going to buy something right now,’” he said. “It’s about walk downtown, see a really beautiful window [and] make a mental reminder to come back before Christmas.”
This article also includes reporting by Abby Zidell, Maggie Seybold, Faith Isbell and Emily Kochard.