At I Boutique on Hope Street, co-owner Carol Scott didn’t need to look up sales receipts to know that the store had a good ending to 2012.
As she’s done for the past eight years, Ms. Scott planned to take the first week of the new year to walk through the store, counting all the remaining clothes and accessories that weren’t scooped up during pre- and post-holiday sales.
“We had a great holiday. I’m doing inventory in one day,” she said. “I didn’t even have to use the computer.”
While the shelves weren’t completely bare, there was far less inventory left, an uplifting sign to small business owners, especially after struggling through several years of a down economy.
“We didn’t have any expectations after the last four years,” she said of this year’s revenues. “Holiday sales have to carry us through January, February and March.”
Absent of “big box” retailers, small businesses continue to be creative with promotions and events to draw consumers into downtown Bristol. While most stores rely on their regular customers, their success also depends on the boost from summer tourists and families that come into town to visit their children attending Roger Williams University.
“It’s not the college kids,” Ms. Scott said of her clientele. “It’s their parents.”
Unlike other retailers that kick-off the traditional holiday shopping rush the day after Thanksgiving, in Bristol that push comes the week before Thanksgiving. And in a town known for its celebrations, Bristol’s “Black Friday” is marked with a colorful event that often includes singers, dancers, and on more than one occasion, fire jugglers.
Developed by the Bristol Merchants Association, the annual Snowflake raffle provides an incentive to buy from local merchants. For every $25 spent, a shopper will receive one Snowflake raffle ticket for the chance to win cash or merchandise.
At Kate and Company, owner Kate Conlon, said the raffle helps to encourage customers to purchase more.
If a customer’s purchase is near the $25 mark, the staff knows to explain that another purchase will get them a free ticket into the drawing. On the holiday stroll that kicks off the raffle, customers get two tickets for each $25 spent.
“People love the Snowflake raffle,” Ms. Conlon said.
Within downtown Bristol’s southern stretch of shops, an area affectionately called “LoHo” or “Lower Hope,” the mix of antique stores, clothing and gift boutiques, jewelers and art galleries have remained constant over the years.
Gone from the center of town this year is the toy shop and the book store, two retailers that offset the influx of salons and restaurants that dominate the area. The loss of those types of businesses are missed by other retailers who benefit by a diverse mix of products and services within walking distance.
“Not having a bookstore really says something about the town,” said Blayney Norton-Hayes who works at Kate and Company.
At Green River Silver Company, store manager Maureen Trenn also seemed optimistic about the past year’s business.
“We’re not going to say it was a banner year, but it was OK,” she said.
The store, which carries handmade silver jewelry and other items from around the world, relies on repeat customers who come back to see the latest items on display.
“I’ve gotten a lot of new people in here,” Ms. Trenn said of an uptick in the store’s customer base. “I wish more people would shop small businesses. I don’t think people realize the benefits.”
Statewide promotions such as the American Express sponsored Small Business Saturday event offered those who used that card monetary incentives for purchases made that day. While the credit card company may have benefitted, the small stores did too.
“Most people shopped because it was local,” Ms. Hayes said
Beyond downtown, Just Ducky, a consignment store on Gooding Avenue also experienced a positive year.
“Consignments shops are becoming hip and trendy,” said shop owner Dawn Holmgren.
By taking in high end children’s clothing and other merchandise, often with new items from specialty stores that failed, the store is able to offer high quality products at affordable prices.
“You feel bad,” Ms. Holmgren said of other stores’ struggles, “but it’s great for the consumer.”
Now that the books are closed on 2012, some local shop owners are looking forward to the break. Soon, the clearance signs in the windows will be replaced with closed signs, as I Boutique and Kate and Company plan to close for a couple of weeks as they do every year.
While many store owners will use the slower months to clean and prepare for a busy spring, Ms. Scott will head to New York to find the latest spring fashions to offer in her store.
The unique items you find in small shops like those in Bristol is what makes shopping local better than just going to the big box retailers, Ms. Scott said.
“We have things you can’t find anywhere else. It’s a little funky.”