Holiday Advice: Shop Early, Stay Flexible

Holiday Advice: Shop Early, Stay Flexible

While most of us are still worrying about whether to buy one more bag of Halloween candy, retail store owners are deep in the throes of preparing for the holiday shopping season. National forecasts predict retail sales to grow more than 7% in 2021, but that expansion will be fueled by a longer shopping season and ever-higher reliance on online shopping.  Northbrook retailers spoke with the Chamber about this year’s unique challenges and their strategies to meet customer demand.

Small independent retailers are advising customers to start shopping early to avoid missing out on scarce items. Marcine Adams, How About Learning, anticipates delays on her orders for popular toys and games. “If you see it and like it, buy it,” she notes, “because it’s likely that I won’t get more until after the holidays. I do have a steady flow of new items planned to come in, but there is no guarantee of their arrival going into the holiday season.” Adams is strategizing ways to make her downtown shop extra appealing to shoppers. For example, the store will bring back last year’s “window shop” display that enables passersby to place on-the-spot orders using QR codes. She also plans to offer personalized gift bags and bundles for a special touch.

Another store working to balance increased demand with contracted supply is George Garner Cyclery. Shoppers cleared out Garner’s in-stock inventory of bikes in 2020 as outdoor exercise and family activities took priority during the pandemic. Demand has remained high this year, but supply chain shortages have limited the store’s capacity. “If supply had been better, we could have filled the same demand as 2020. But we’re very thankful for the business that we’ve done; we know that others have struggled,” says Garner. As the weather has grown cooler, the bike shop has had the opportunity to add to its inventory in anticipation of holiday shopping that usually starts in mid-November. The store continues to offer special services introduced during the pandemic, including online ordering, curbside pickup, and home delivery. “Over the past year and a half, our online sales have skyrocketed,” notes Garner.

To support in-person shopping for its tenants, Northbrook Court has planned a variety of attractions to draw foot traffic. The drive-thru light show Let It Shine will open on November 5, and partnerships with restaurants are being developed. “Let It Shine obviously attracts thousands of people. The challenge is to get them to leave their cars and come inside,” notes General Manager Brian Lee. “We’re looking at ways for people to schedule dinner or photos with Santa at the same time they purchase their show tickets online.”  Speaking of Santa, the traditional in-person visits will return on November 18 with options for scheduled or walk-up appointments for kids, as well as appointments for pet photos. Spectacularly decorated Christmas trees will be auctioned off at the November 20 Festival of Trees, a fundraiser for the Stepping Stones Network. Throughout the holiday season, guests will be able to enjoy amenities like the two children’s play areas, fully-opened movie theater, and pet-friendly shopping policies.

“Our stores are definitely starting to push holiday shopping earlier, but they do seem to be well stocked right now. The supply chain issues have mostly affected things like shopping bags and wrapping paper,” notes Lee. COVID-specific policies like curbside pickup are less likely to be available due to staffing shortages, but enhanced cleaning protocols and mask mandates increase customer confidence about indoor shopping.  Many businesses will also offer in-store pickup of online orders, a feature that analysts expect to see grow in use nationally by 10 percent over last year.

Independent online retailers have been riding a wave of high demand throughout the pandemic. Lisa Smith, who launched her internet toy store Parkway Presents in August 2019, could not have foreseen how her business would explode through the 2020 holiday shopping season.  “March 2020 through Christmas was crazy; I was working 18 hours a day 7 days a week,” relates Smith. “Everybody was ordering gifts not just for their own kids, but to be delivered to their friends and relatives.”  When Amazon started having shortages, customers turned to her — especially since she offered personal delivery to surrounding suburbs. After a slight slowdown in the spring, business picked up rapidly at the start of the school year.  Her main concern now is managing her stock, as she juggles orders from multiple suppliers to avoid shortfalls. “Vendors started warning us about shortages early in the summer, and I needed to place orders in August to avoid major price increases and surcharges,” she notes.

Similarly, Lise Schleicher of BasketWorks is sourcing products from a variety of suppliers as her usual vendors deal with their own supply chain hang ups. “Most of the items going into my baskets are food, but the manufacturers can’t get the ingredients or the packaging materials they need,” says Schleicher. “On top of that, shipping companies are all backed up so that just adds to the delays.” To minimize that impact, she looks for local vendors with shorter delivery windows and identifies similar products that will work as substitutions.  “As long as the customer is flexible about the items, I’ll be able to supply a basket full of delicious items. But if there’s something very specific you want, it’s best to place that order right away.”

Schleicher also reminds shoppers to allow extra time for shipped gifts to be delivered — a week or more to be safe. And above all, be kind to shop owners and employees, who often catch the brunt of customers’ frustration over circumstances beyond their control. “Everybody’s doing the very best they can,” she notes.