The ceiling of the Holiday Inn Expo Center is so high that the 9 or 10 foot tall maze of 119 booths seems like a LEGO town by comparison. The combined din of hundreds of buyers and sellers eagerly sharing a communion over wares of all varieties can barely fill the room, and when standing just a few feet back, it’s all reduced to a shapeless hum.
A constant river of shoppers flows up and down the aisles, courted by racks of winter clothes and sugary creations and brightly colored toys, an exhausting diversity of things for sale. It’s the King’s Daughters Holiday Festival, an annual event held on the second weekend of November, and it’s only one of the ever-growing number of reminders that the holiday season is upon us.
“It’s been busy,” said Christina Kelley, owner of Make Scents. She had a booth at the festival to promote her business, which is located on Ninth Street. “We’re definitely selling Christmas presents.”
If American society has a sixth sense, it is buy. And this is never more apparent than during these waning months of the year. We are bowled over by the smell of pine and the sight of lights and the taste of turkey and the sounds of carols and the feel of Grandma’s hugs and, perhaps more than anything else, the ka-ching! of the cash registers that make it all possible.
The current economy, one with high gas prices, a weak housing market and high levels of credit card debt, has lead the National Retail Federation to forecast the slowest sales increase for this holiday season since 2002 at 4.0 percent. But while some larger chain stores have reacted by starting their late-year push even earlier than usual, many local businesses aren’t changing their strategies to get the most out of this, the most important time of year for retailers.
“Our items tend to do fine when the economy doesn’t do well,” Kelley said.
The holiday season is so crucial for sales that some shops spend the entire year planning around it. Mike Atkinson, who co-owns The Candy Factory, located on Cherry Street, said the orders for next Christmas will begin in January. The relentless planning and preparation can be wearisome. “Does this holiday ever end?” he asked, rhetorically, before laughing. “It’s really fun.”
Despite the fact that gleaming tinsel and candy cane-scented candles have been prominently featured in store windows in Columbia since the start of November, the real spending increase doesn’t usually happen until December. In fact, over the last five years, the city has collected even less sales tax in November than in October.
Still, getting shoppers in the mood for the season a little early could have monetary benefits for stores anyway. “They’re kind of perusing for gift ideas for the holidays,” said Veronica Kramer, owner of Pen Point Papierie, located on Broadway.
And dividends have come. Last year, the city collected 74 percent more in total sales tax in December than in November. Even though retail accounts for only a part of this overall statistic, this portion of the economy certainly contributes to the dramatic rise.
Lights and pine aren’t necessarily a source of cheer, however, especially before Thanksgiving.
“I think some of it’s insulting,” said Columbia resident Tim Cullen. Cullen, 49, believes decorations are being used to manipulate shoppers on some occasions.
“I don’t like it because of the product aspect of it. The waste,” Cullen said. “There are third-world countries living on our trash.”
Still, Cullen, along with all but one of the twenty or so randomly selected Columbia residents who expressed displeasure at having to look at holiday decorations already, said it won’t have a negative impact on his spending this season.
“I’ll buy something because people have been good to me this year,” he said. “I don’t want to make anyone feel bad — especially kids.”