The holiday shopping season is often a time for consumers to snag steeply discounted flat-screen TVs, but for retailers, it’s several frantic weeks to bring in sometimes more than a third of their annual sales.

National holiday shopping sales are projected to increase by around 4 percent this year, but in Maine, the results for retailers can be more dependent on the weather than what items they mark down, said Curtis Picard, executive director of the Retail Association of Maine.

Retailers last year experienced the bad end of the spectrum when the last two weekends before Christmas saw a storm that dropped about a foot of snow in parts of Maine and a devastating ice storm leaving many without power. The ice storm that began on the weekend before Christmas last year covered parts of the state in up to an inch of ice, causing widespread power outages and more than $5 million in damage.

Unlike storms that happen earlier in the holiday shopping season, those last-minute retail dollars lost in bad weather can’t be made up, Picard said.

“If you have really bad weather that wipes out one of those weekends or a poorly timed ice storm, that can really have a dramatic impact up here,” he said.

Maine merchants selling goods on the online marketplace Etsy will get a jump on the holiday shopping Friday by hosting their third annual cash mob. The Etsy Maine Team represents around 135 Maine vendors on the website.

Lori Ouellette, the head of a group that sells handmade products on BearMtnCrochet, her Etsy shop, said the group came up with the idea three years ago as a way to bring the group together around the holidays.

Ouellette, of Livermore, said the event has been successful in previous years, and it allows the group to create more buzz about shopping locally online. The Etsy Maine Team will be posting information on its Facebook page Friday about deals offered by some of its members, she said.

“Certainly the holidays are when many of our shops gear up and their sales increase exponentially, depending on what items they sell,” Ouellette said.

Picard said the 4.1 percent holiday spending increase projected by the National Retail Federation is encouraging. Those projections tend to be conservative, he said, even though last year’s 3.1 percent increase fell short of the projection from the retail organization.

“If we hit that, I’ll be happy,” Picard said of the 4.1 percent increase. “If we go beyond that, I’ll be ecstatic.”

Drops in gasoline and oil prices, along with an economy that seems to be improving, make Picard hopeful that retailers will see stronger sales this year, but the results in Maine will be largely dependent on the weather, he said.

Following a large drop in 2008, Maine’s general retail sales during the months of November and December have remained basically flat year over year. Last year, the combined totals of general retail sales, which include large department stores and specialty stores, fell about 1 percent in the months of November and December compared to 2012, according to Maine Revenue Services.

Nationally, the 4.1 percent increase projected by the National Retail Federation would be the first time since 2011 that holiday sales would increase more than 4 percent, according to a release from the organization announcing its projections.

Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the federation, said in the release that there remains some uneasiness and anxiety among consumers despite the positive projection. Shoppers are expected to continue to be extremely price sensitive, he said.

“Retailers will respond by differentiating themselves and touting price, value and exclusivity,” Shay said.

Although some national retail analysts have said Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, has become less important for retailers because of the proliferation of markdowns throughout the holiday shopping season, it remains a top holiday shopping day. Big box stores and shopping centers, such as the Marketplace at Augusta, are expecting big crowds to start lining up for deals at midnight.

Sarah Goodwin, store manager at the Marketplace’s Aeropostale, said she’s expecting even more shoppers this Black Friday because new stores have opened in the Marketplace since last year.

Across the country, many big box retailers will be opening Thanksgiving night, but Maine law keeps stores with more than 5,000 square feet closed until after midnight.

Most days the store only staffs a couple of employees, but Goodwin said she’ll have 10 or more workers on for the peak shopping hours.

This year the Augusta shopping center is also trying to entice and reward early-morning shoppers with food trucks, DJs and light shows between midnight and 5 a.m.

Retailers at the open-air shopping mall in Augusta last year saw thousands of shoppers walk through their doors in the early hours of Black Friday, said Ellyne Fleshner, director of field management and marketing for WS Development, the retail development company that owns the Marketplace. She said she’s expecting even more shoppers this year because of the food and entertainment event. On previous Black Fridays, there weren’t any food options open in the early hours, she said.

“Anything we can do to enhance the shopping experience for the shopper is something we love to do,” Fleshner said.

In downtown Gardiner, the local Main Street organization is trying to encourage shoppers to spend some of their holiday budgets at local businesses. Gardiner Main Street is hosting a competitive shopping event Nov. 29 to coincide with national Small Business Saturday, an event started by American Express in 2010 to promote shopping local on the Saturday after Black Friday and before Cyber Monday.

Participants will meet at Johnson Hall Park at 1 p.m. before going off to do their shopping. The shopper who spends the most and the shopper who buys from the most stores will each get prizes, said Patrick Wright, executive director of Gardiner Main Street. A gift-wrapping station will also be set up in Gerard’s Pizza.

Wright said small businesses offer better customer service than large retailers and unique gifts not found in other places. He also said he thinks shopping downtown and locally is a more pleasurable experience for people than battling crowds at malls and shopping centers.

“We think people want to have that experience of feeling like they’re part of the community. That’s why we do so many events during the holiday season, to bring back that community feel,” Wright said.

Paul Koenig — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @paul_koenig


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