A couple crammed a cart-full of items into their minivan at the front door of True Value Hardware store in Steamboat Springs on Saturday as a steady stream of more customers kept the automatic doors busy behind them.
While some shoppers browsed the aisles, a large group gathered near KFMU's radio station booth to enter into a prize drawing for a $500 gift certificate. True Value has held prize giveaways before, but none like this, said manager Doug Post.
"Some people are saying sales are down from last year, but ours definitely are not," Post said.
Many Steamboat retailers held special events to kick off the holiday shopping season, including True Value's raffle, F.M. Light & Sons' free lunch and Ski Haus' canned food drive Saturday. The retailers say the events are fun, but they also are aimed at combating what is expected to be a low-selling holiday season.
According to a survey released last week by the Consumer Federal Credit Union of America and the Credit Union National Association, about one-third of consumers said they planned to spend less this year on gifts than they did last year.
U.S. households are expected to spend on average $455 on gifts, down from $483 last year, according to a similar survey.
That prediction is one local retailers hope to prove wrong -- particularly given that Steamboat's sales tax numbers were lagging last year's by 2.16 percent going into the final quarter.
Some retailers say business is increasing, and to keep it growing, they are holding special offers and sales to keep the customers coming in.
Holiday shoppers packed F.M. Light & Sons on Saturday, welcomed by a red-lettered sign outside reading "FREE LUNCH." Customer service manager John Schoen said the free homemade chili definitely brought people in from the sidewalks, but it was more of an effort to make shopping fun.
"We're trying to make (holiday shopping) fun and festive," Schoen said. "Shopping is supposed to be fun, but when you have a lot of people standing in line, you have to do something different to keep it fun."
Ski Haus, another popular gift-grabbing destination, enticed customers over the Thanksgiving weekend by giving 15 percent discounts on entire purchases to those who brought in canned food for the LIFT-UP Food Bank.
Given the current trends, retailers say they are not keeping high inventories this season, in hopes of having cash in the bank rather than overstocked shelves. For customers, that means the earlier they shop, the greater chances they will have to get what they want.
Gina Norton, manager of Christy Sports in Central Park Plaza, said the store was not keeping high inventory this season, but said Christy Sports has an advantage of having nearly 40 locations, six in Steamboat, so the business easily can ship requested items from store to store. For the same reason, she said the stores' vendors also are not pushing to produce a great amount of product.
F.M. Light's Schoen agreed. He said that not only is the store keeping a low inventory this season, but its suppliers are, too. Schoen said if an item sells out, the store may not be able to restock it.
"It's not so much the retailers, but the vendors are being careful," Schoen said. "They don't want to be stuck with inventory, either. We can always special order, but there is no guarantee it will be here by Christmas."
While national surveys say shoppers are on a tight budget, people are buying locally. Weber gas grills are the hot item at the Steamboat Springs True Value. The Colorado Retail Council reported that home electronics, such as flat-screen televisions and DVD players, are expected to be big sellers at retail giants such as Wal-Mart and Target. The electronics sale boom is mostly because of the low prices on these popular items, a Wal-Mart electronics clerk said.
-- To reach Nick Foster call 871-4204
or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org