Local merchants report strong holiday sales

By Jessica Rose

Ottawa businesses have disassembled their Christmas trees and packed their colourful lights into storage for another year. Though official reports analyzing the revenue for December have yet to be released, the community’s retailers are optimistic, hoping it is followed by a steady January, as consumers redeem gift cards.

Lori Mellor, executive director for the Preston Street

Business Improvement Association says Little Italy was “catching fire” this year with many excited shoppers lining the streets.

She says it was the street pageantry and decorating that reflected the season that drew customers to the area’s restaurants and shops this December.

“Our store was definitely busier than last year,” says Jean-Richard Dextras, store manager of Elgin Sports on Bank Street.

“Our December was very good,” he added, saying that sales figures reflected a lively buying season.

Dextras says customers brave finding a parking space downtown during the year’s busiest season to visit shops that offer gifts that can’t be found at local superstores.

“We try to have products that people will go out of their way to come find,” he says.

Canadian shopping patterns are heavily monitored by Statistics Canada, creating a buyer profile of what shoppers are looking for, where they find them and how much they spend.

In December 2004, Canadian shoppers spent a total of $34.5 billion in retail stores, a 6.9 per cent increase from 2003, reported Statistics Canada.

Mellor is optimistic that sales will continue to rise.

“I’m getting positive reports back from businesses,” she says, calling 2005 a very good year for some of the city’s smaller, independently owned shops.

These small stores must secure a niche offering for consumers, who otherwise may visit large department stores or big box chains, where statistics show the average consumer spends the most.

During 2004’s holiday season department stores ranked number one in dollar sales, bringing in a total of $3.2 billion, according to Statistics Canada.

“It’s a challenge (to compete), but we attract people who are willing to pay a little more for the experience,” says Mellor.

She adds that Christmas shoppers benefited from the more intimate relationship they can have with the business owners of smaller, specialty shops, especially when it comes to receiving more advice and customer service.

Amina Akhtar, owner and manager of the Boutique Le Papillon on Bank Street, agrees. She says that most of her shoppers keep coming back because of her customer service.

While the streets have grown quieter since last-minute shoppers rushed to purchase their final gifts and ornaments, Mellor is surprised to see that restaurants and shops still seem to be flourishing.

“I think gift cards have something to do with it,” she says.

In 2004, 68 per cent of stores offered gift cards during the Christmas season, considerably higher than the 53 per cent of retailers offering them in 2003, according to Statistics Canada.

Most businesses do not record gift card sales upon purchase during the holidays, rather they count towards a store’s sales when they are redeemed, energizing January results.