“I think everyone is going into the holiday season very optimistic that it's going to be a great year,” said Joy Gaasch, president of the Chamber of Commerce Grand Haven, Spring Lake, Ferrysburg.
The National Retail Federation predicts holiday sales to jump 4.1 percent this year. That sounds promising at first blush, but that's more than a percentage point lower than the growth in each of the past two years, and the smallest increase since 2009 when sales were up just 0.3 percent.
Still, it's an improvement from 2008 when sales fell 4.4 percent, according to National Retail Federation data.
The uptick in the stock market, increased home sales and low mortgage rates may be giving a boost to consumers’ cash habits, but it's unknown if higher food and gasoline prices this winter will weigh down the enthusiasm.
Calico Cat owner Mary Janusz said higher fuel prices may actually help the downtown and local shopping scenes.
“I think gas prices have helped because a lot of people aren't traveling as far,” Janusz said. “They might make a trip to the beach and shop downtown rather than go to a mall or far away. I've noticed when I ask people where they're from, there are a lot more people from places like Grand Rapids and Hudsonville making day trips. Grand Haven is a real gem.”
Grand Rapids residents Claire Orsinger and Stephanie Hirdes visited Calico Cat at 10 Washington Ave. last week for a “girl's day-out” shopping excursion. The friends' recent life experiences have catapulted them to opposite ends of the economic confidence spectrum.
Hirdes said she's nervous about the holidays because her husband recently lost his job. Unless a jovial, jelly-bellied man with a wardrobe of red shows up on her roof, she expects to pare presents by 20 percent compared to last year.
“The kids are older and everything is more expensive,” Hirdes said. “At least they know there's no Santa.”
Orsinger hasn't had such financial upheaval. She sold her house in three weeks and is confident that's a sign of an improving economy. She expects to spend the same or more on holiday gifts compared to last year.
“I am optimistic,” Orsinger said. “I sold my house quickly and I'm seeing a lot of 'sold' signs. I think the housing market has turned around and I certainly think the economy is going to turn around.”
Orsinger isn't the only one feeling lucky. According to a recent Gallup Poll, September consumer confidence climbed to its highest level since May.
Janusz said judging by summer and fall traffic at the Calico Cat, she expects a bustling, boisterous buying season.
“I'm expecting it to be really, really good,” said Janusz, adding that September sales spiked 6 percent over the same period last year. “I think the economy has improved and I think our new streetscape helps a lot, too.”
The storeowner said the sagging economy of recent years opened another window of opportunity — instead of buying a new house, she noticed a trend of people uprgrading the home they have — and buying more draperies and décor from her inventory.
Sharon Reyers, owner of R House Traditional Country & Gift Shop at 704 E. Savidge St. in Spring Lake, is also seeing steady sales.
Reyers said the store's September open house was the best she's experienced in 23 years of business. She's also following a national holiday hiring trend — she bumped her staff from six to seven.
Reyers projects a 3 to 4 percent increase in holiday sales over last year, but said she'll have to work for it.
“You really have to push hard,” she said. “You want every day to be a strong day. I think we will extend our hours and try to grab some of the night business. Because we need a strong holiday season to get us through the winter, you have to do it.”
Although strong sales may be linked to consumer confidence, Reyers said storeowners need to do their part to ignite that feeling of well-being.
“You have to have positive thinking,” she said. “If you go into the season thinking down, it shows. You have to keep the energy level up. Your customers can sense that. You don't want to talk about the blues because that's not what people have come to hear.”
Gaasch said the Chamber's Dune Dollars local gift certificate program has a jingle in its step — sales were up 15 percent in 2011. She said sales are sizzling and she hopes for more robust numbers when 2012 data is calculated.
“A lot more people in our community are really focused on supporting local stores,” Gaasch said. “And I think we have seen an increase in visitors from around Michigan. People come here for a special day of shopping because we have so many unique shops with very interesting gifts. From a downtown perspective, I think we're going to see a real uptick in sales this season.”