PRESQUE ISLE, Maine – Aroostook County holiday shoppers are saying goodbye to the one-day Black Friday frenzy, canceling internet orders and buying locally.
Businesses from Houlton to the St. John’s Valley have seen strong sales this season, with cold-weather clothing, decorations and jewelry among the top sellers.
Inflation and increases in fuel oil and electricity have immobilized consumers across the state. But in the county, some retailers say holiday sales are surpassing last year and have brought them back to pre-pandemic levels.
Not only are people buying more gifts locally, but they’re more determined than ever to celebrate, no matter the cost of living.
“When it comes to in-store shopping, I think the pandemic has really helped show the value for Maine residents that they’re supporting their local businesses,” said Curtis Picard, president and CEO of the Retail Association of Maine in Augusta. “I think people have been more aware of that.”
And there is another interesting reversal. Millennials — those born in the 1980s and 1990s — generally didn’t like shopping in stores, he said. But Gen Z, which followed, seems to be returning to in-store experiences.
The image reflects the National Retail Federation’s November 3 forecast that while online sales would continue, more shoppers would return to in-person shopping. The federation predicted holiday sales would grow 6-8% in 2021 despite inflation.
Maine generally follows the national trail, Picard said. Members of the retail association have reported a strong back-to-school season, and since Thanksgiving, sales have been rising in what looks like the first normal holiday shopping season since 2019.
“I know a lot of people aren’t buying online this year. They’re buying locally, so when they see it, they’re buying it right away,” said Jamie Forsman, manager of Trader Joe’s Outpost in Près Isle.
Many store customers aren’t expecting big sales or deals, Forsman said. The Black Friday push spans the entire season, meaning a steady stream of shoppers since before Thanksgiving.
All types of outerwear—jackets, hats, gloves, and boots—are popular gifts. The store also sells other footwear, clothing, snowshoes and outdoor gear.
Newcomers to the area are a big contributor to sales because they’re unprepared for winter and have bought a lot of cold-weather gear, Forsman said.
Jewelry has grown in popularity since the pandemic, according to Sam Corey of Robert’s Jewelry in Madawaska.
The jewelry industry has seen unique growth during COVID-19 restrictions, Corey said. People couldn’t come together to celebrate with their loved ones in the traditional way, so many chose jewelry as a way to express their love.
Sales of lab-created diamonds have increased this holiday season.
“For a lot of people, especially in our area, you get what you pay for – a big, big sparkle but at a fraction of the cost of traditionally mined diamonds,” Corey said.
More and more people are spending their money locally, he said. Sales are higher than last year and have been largely unaffected by inflationary pressures.
She says shoppers haven’t let higher prices elsewhere affect their vacation spending, said Patty Corriveau, owner of Thistle Stop Design, a florist and antique restoration store in Caribou.
“Whether it’s gas or groceries, that hasn’t stopped us from doing Thanksgiving, and it won’t stop us at Christmas,” Corriveau said. “It’s just something so important, to be with your family, especially after going through the pandemic.”
Corriveau creates arrangements with old barrels and logs filled with pine, fir, juniper, red dogwood and other branches. Whether indoors or outdoors, these are particularly popular with customers right now, she said.
Sales at her shop were buoyant even during the pandemic, as people were unable to congregate physically and sent flowers and gifts to each other. Now she is busier than ever, she says.
In Houlton, Country North Gifts sales are comparable to pre-COVID-19 levels, Country North Gifts staff member Shannon Cibic said.
Corkcicles insulated tumblers and coffee mugs, which come in a variety of shapes and colors, have been popular at the store, Cibic said.
“I would say we’re back to normal,” she said. “There were a lot of people [shopping].”
At Bogan Books of Fort Kent, business looks a bit ahead of last year, owner Heidi Carter said. Although people are spending less, there are more customers overall, including new faces.
“People are, I think, a little more careful about how they spend their money,” she said. “We sell a lot of gift certificates, but their value is a little lower this year.”
Books by Maine authors do well throughout the year, but are particularly sought after during the holiday season. At the moment, Stephen King’s new book “Fairy Tale” is popular. Customers are also interested in “Our Missing Hearts” by Celeste Ng, “The Light We Carry” by Michele Obama and “Friends, Lovers and the Big Terrible Thing” by Matthew Perry.
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