Wilton retailers welcome holiday season

With stores closing and retailers filing for bankruptcy nationwide, some would ask how it is possible that a trade group still expects holiday sales to at least match the 3.6% growth of a year ago, as online shopping keeps increasing and Wilton, which has few major retailers, squeaks by.

It raises the question, does the Christmas retail season mean as much to a town like Wilton as it does to a retail community like Stamford, where there is a major mall?

“Well, I can’t speak for all of Wilton, but absolutely, the holiday period is a great time for the store, starting from right after Halloween,” said Tom Sato, owner of Wilton Hardware in Wilton Center.

He sells Christmas decorations including lighting and firewood and fireplace accessories that help make the season bright.

“It’s all about entertaining at home,” Sato said. “People need to spruce up their homes because they are having guests, and you get the home improvement trade and the holiday decorations. We sell a lot of Christmas lights, tree stands, outdoor decorations to make their homes look festive, and hopefully, if they are in the store, they are looking for ideas for gifts.”

The hardware store publishes several sales circulars during the Christmas season, although Sato admits his store is not a Black Friday destination, as you would find in Stamford.

“It’s not like we get that huge rush of people that are banging at the doors waiting to get in,” Sato said.

Debra Hanson, executive director of the Wilton Chamber of Commerce, agreed with Sato that the holiday season is important for Wilton just as it is for a more commercialized town.

“Our retailers will take any help they can get,” she said.

The Wilton Chamber even sponsors a Holiday Stroll, set for Dec. 1, to bring potential shoppers to town.

The Christmas shopping season is important for these smaller stores, as seen by the increasing importance of Small Business Saturday, said economist Steven Glazer of Norwalk Community College. Held the Saturday after Thanksgiving since 2010, it is intended to help promote small businesses in local communities and encourage people to opt for something other than online or big box operations. In addition, by shopping locally, it provides more revenues to these local businesses, which, if sales can be sustained, may lead to increased employment by these businesses into the future.

“I believe that the small village shopping experience does benefit because it encourages individuals to become more familiar with local businesses and also to spend their money to help boost the local economy instead of the major retailer, who is less likely to pump that money back into the local community,” Glazer said.

There’s no question that Small Business Saturday has become part of the shopping experience since it has been vigorously promoted over the last couple of decades, said Erica Molhotra, owner of B-Chic, a women’s clothing boutique in Wilton Center for more than 11 years.

“Small Business Saturday has been more promoted, and people in Wilton want to support their local shops. So on Small Business Saturday they are coming in and we try to give a discount and promotions to entice them,” she said. “Christmas season is when we shine. If we’re not shining then, it’s not good.”

It’s not only stores in Wilton Center. There are retail outlets along the commercial strip of Route 7, including the Outdoor Sports Center and the Wilton Sport Shop.

“Generally, I would say on Small Business Saturday we do see a little better traffic on that day than on Black Friday, although they do coincide,” said Ken Cyr, owner of the Wilton Sport Shop.

The holiday season is important to Wilton retailers, he said, but it is not as good as it was in the old days, before online shopping.

“Yes, it’s important,” he said.

The National Retail Federation said it expects sales in November and December to rise 3.6% to 4%, to a range of $678.75 billion to $682 billion. It’s the first time the group made its forecast in a range rather than by a fixed percentage, because the impact of several big hurricanes is still uncertain.

Retailers fighting the dominance of Amazon are trying to reinvent themselves, and are being forced to close if they don’t do it fast enough. Dozens of retail chains have filed for bankruptcy this year and hundreds of stores have closed — particularly among those dependent on clothing sales.

“Retail is not dead,” said NRF CEO Matthew Shay. “It’s transforming.”

Holiday forecasts from Deloitte, the International Council of Shopping Centers and AlixPartners have come in around the same level, ranging from growth of 3.5% to 4.5%.