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Holiday shopping season off to a slow start for specialty retailers

Published December 4, 2013

TUSTIN, CA (BRAIN) — Despite deep discounts and sales that started earlier than ever, Thanksgiving weekend sales were down for the first time in seven years, according to the National Retail Federation. The Wall Street Journal reported that consumers spent $57.4 billion on Black Friday and the following Saturday, down 2.8 percent from $59.1 billion last year. 

An online poll conducted by Bicycle Retailer shows that sales over the weekend were down this year for most bike and specialty retailers, with 48 percent of participants reporting that holiday sales are so far slower than expected. Just 13 percent reported better-than-expected sales.

The Path Bike Shop in Tustin, California, is one such retailer. With a three-day sale spanning the weekend, The Path saw its highest-grossing day on record on Black Friday, the day it offered the deepest discounts.

“Between our two stores, we had a fantastic day,” said Neil Adams, general manager at The Path. “We opened two hours early on a rainy day and crossed our fingers. But by noon, we were up to speed and by 4 p.m. it was rocking in here. It just didn’t slow down all day.” 

Top-selling items at The Path were helmets, tires and apparel. “I saw several people walk up to the register with four or five helmets and four tires,” said Adams. “It was nuts.”

According to the Bicycle Retailer poll, 39 percent of retailers reported that holiday sales are on par with what they expected. 

“Black Friday and the weekend after Thanksgiving have been pretty consistent for us for the past three years,” said Ron Kiefel, owner of Wheat Ridge Cyclery in Denver, Colorado. “This year was no different. It wasn’t that busy on Friday—and we didn’t expect it to be.”

“But our November sales were up 15 percent over last year,” added Kiefel. “The weather was nicer than usual and that was a big factor.”

And Kiefel isn’t the only retailer who saw better-than-average November numbers.

“Our November sales were almost double what they were last year,” said Justin Lucke, manager of City Cycle in San Francisco. “It was just busy in general here. We had good discounts on 2013 models and moved some inventory.”

Lucke said Black Friday and the weekend were just average. “It was busy but not crazy,” he said. “Lots of people came in to look at bikes. We saw a lot of foot traffic, but sales were just OK.”

Marty Pluth, manager of Gregg’s Greenlake Cycle in Seattle, Washington, reported that his store’s Black Friday sales were also just average. “Sales over the weekend were about the same as last year,” said Pluth. “But honestly, the Friday after Thanksgiving has never been a booming sales day for us. I think that Black Friday shopping is centered mostly around big-box and mall retailers, so we never expect a big day.”

But like City Cycle, Gregg’s also saw increased sales in November. “We were up 20 percent for the month,” said Pluth. “The weather was dry, and that had everything to do with it.” 

Pluth said he expects sales to ramp up two weeks before Christmas. “A short window between Thanksgiving and Christmas means fewer shopping days this year. So we should be pretty busy the next couple of weekends,” he said.

In the mountain resort town of Bigfork, Montana, Black Friday was quieter than the average Friday—something that Renny Johnson, owner of Montana Adventure Sports, wasn’t expecting. “The whole weekend was slow,” said Johnson. “I don’t know what was going on. Last year it was very busy; we had our best day that Friday.”

Johnson also said November was slow for his store, and that the seasonal drop-off this year was more dramatic than usual. “Honestly, it seems like fewer people are buying,” he said. “It almost feels like they are afraid to spend. And I think more people are buying online, so we’ve got to work doubly hard to stand out.” 

And it turns out that more consumers did opt to shop from the comforts of their own home. The Wall Street Journal reported that online sales rose 15 percent on Black Friday to reach about $1.2 billion, and were up 21 percent on Thanksgiving Day. Online sales accounted for 44 percent of the weekend’s sales, up 41 percent from last year. 

“Big-box sales starting on Thanksgiving doesn’t make it any easier for the little guy,” said Johnson. “We’re going to ramp up advertising and cast a wider net to promote some unique offerings in December to hopefully make up for a slow start.”

Like Johnson, Wheat Ridge Cyclery’s Kiefel understands the need to adapt in order to survive in today’s holiday shopping environment.

“Fifteen years ago, we’d have more than 300 bikes on layaway right before Christmas,” he said. “Now we have fewer than 20. Everything is immediate nowadays, and we just have to be flexible and continue to adapt to be competitive.”

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