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Retailers big and small brace for holiday onslaught

Carmen Brock, the owner of Trohv in Hampden, pauses near a new display of Christmas ornaments.
Carmen Brock, the owner of Trohv in Hampden, pauses near a new display of Christmas ornaments. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun)

At boutique store Trohv in Hampden, staffers worked in a basement workshop to create a bear hibernation scene out of papier-mache, plastic foam packing peanuts and recycled cardboard for this year's holiday window. As Black Friday approaches, the merchant is counting on its 10 existing employees to staff two stores and plans to extend hours only if it gets busy.

At JCPenney in White Marsh, employees have set up holiday decor sent by the corporate office — dangling snowflakes and "Jingle More Bells" signs. The department store has hired nearly 100 extra workers and is bracing for an onslaught of shoppers to line up for a 5 p.m. opening on Thanksgiving. They are welcome to stay and shop overnight and throughout Black Friday.

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While retailers big and small operate on different scales when it comes to the holidays, the stakes are equally high. Sales in November and December can make up to 40 percent of a retailer's annual business, according to the National Retail Federation.

It can be make-it-or-break-it-time for many merchants.

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"This is the bulk of our business in these six weeks. The bulk of sales," said Carmen Brock, co-owner of Trohv, an eight-year-old home decor and gift shop on 36th Street. "It's also our favorite time."

Retailers have been optimistic this season, with forecasters calling for a stronger showing than last year. Predictions for sales growth range from 3 percent to 5 percent. According the retail federation's annual holiday spending survey, shoppers plan to spend an average of $804, up 5 percent from last year.

"It's America's favorite sport — the $5 trillion retail industry," said Doug Hope, founder of GlobalShop, referring to the projected amount of U.S. retail sales in 2014. GlobalShop puts on an annual retail design trade show for the industry.

"Unemployment is down, and gas is cheap, putting money back in people's pockets," Hope said.

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While Black Friday traditionally kicked off the holiday season, a number of retailer moves have diluted the importance of the shopping bonanza the day after Thanksgiving.

Many big chains, department stores and discounters now open on Thanksgiving — among them Best Buy, Kmart, Macy's and Target. And some stores launch big sales immediately after Halloween, or offer constant online deals. Nearly four-fifths of consumers start their holiday shopping before Thanksgiving weekend, according to a recent survey conducted by Indianapolis-based mall owner Simon Property Group.

"For the past several years, we have seen the organized shopper getting a jump on the holiday season, starting as early as the middle of October," said Gene Condon, general manager of Arundel Mills mall in Hanover. "And a lot of that is obviously influenced by retailers who similarly start some of their sales activities a little earlier. Every year seems to increase a little bit."

A separate survey, released last week by Bankrate Inc., found that 28 percent of Americans plan to shop in a store on Black Friday, while 40 percent will shop that day either in a store or online.

"The general consensus is that Black Friday isn't really what it was post recession, and the new normal is that about a third of consumers are shopping on this day," said Jeanine Skowronski, an analyst with bankrate.com. Thanksgiving sales "are diverting spending away from traditional Black Friday sales. Those are the sales that hard core bargain shoppers will attend. They want to be first in line and get the door busters."

That means retailers are preparing for a long holiday shopping season.

For Trohv, the day after Thanksgiving used to be the second-biggest day of the year after the Saturday before Christmas. But now that second-best day has shifted to the Saturday after Thanksgiving, as the American Express-backed Small Business Saturday promotion has picked up momentum over the past few years.

Trohv, like many small retailers, plans to stay closed on Thanksgiving and open at it's regular time on Black Friday.

Meanwhile, JCPenny is bracing for a long week. Black Friday is as big as ever, according to Ron Chapuis, the White Marsh store's manager. "It's a huge event," he said.

And being open for more hours "has spread it out a bit," he said.

Chapuis started hiring for the holidays in October, and nearly 100 have started in jobs such as customer service and re-stocking. The holiday decor was in place by the day after Halloween.

The store is part of a nationwide chain that relies on a merchandise supply network that includes multiple distribution centers. Swimwear and short sleeve shirts were replaced by coats, sweaters and flannel shirts weeks ago. And the mannequins in the children's' department were changed into holiday party dresses.

Linda Plack, a real estate agent from Bel Air, had picked out a shirt for her son-in-law at JCPenney recently, and hoped to find something in the women's department for her daughter-in-law.

"I like that the sales are starting earlier," she said. "I'm trying to get the best bargains I can."

Toni Russo, the store's sales leader, is expecting strong sales of vests, coats and flannel — both for men and women. And "boots are huge," she said.

Russo is spending time this week "walking the ads, making sure every single item is in place" and "making sure associates know what's on sale." She said she wants departments "full and looking delicious, so the customer wants to grab and buy it."

Trohv's employees have been doing similar work on a smaller scale.

Bree Rock, the store's visual and merchandising director, has spent the last couple of weeks moving merchandise previously displayed at the front of the store to other spots to make way for holiday ornaments, candles and wrapping paper. She has inserted new holiday items into other store departments such as bath and babies as shipments have arrived daily.

Rock helped conceive the hibernation window display back in August. In the shop's lower level, a space filled with serving platters, kitchen utensils, vintage collectibles and Vegan leather bags, she still needs to arrange a holiday table display but is waiting for a shipment of platters and other items to arrive.

"Here, it's very fluid and things change on the spot," said Rock, who used to work for a chain that sent each store photos of mapped-out merchandise set-ups. "When we were working on the window, you can see people really stop and look and walk in the door. It does make an impact."

Brock, the store's owner, starts the holiday planning early in the year, attending trade shows in January and February to place orders for holiday ornaments, bells, candles and other gift items, basing decisions not only on what sold well previously but on "trends, gut and lasting power."

"I look for objects that are beautiful and practical," she said.

The former city middle school language arts teacher said growing up on a cattle and tobacco farm in Kentucky taught her budgeting, but her literature background "infuses what I do here." That includes the decision to highlight items by local businesses and artists who make jam, lotion, quirky felt ornaments and other items.

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The mix appealed to Christina Broke, 21, a Greensboro resident who was browsing the store recently. She had been referred there by friends during a visit to Baltimore.

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"I like places like this, eclectic and re-purposing a lot of stuff," Broke said.

Brock said she tries to create an atmosphere that's an alternative to the chains, especially around the holidays. She plays no Christmas music, for instance, and on Christmas Eve, it's typically Johnny Cash.

"I don't know that it's our goal to compete," Brock said. "Our intentions are to co-exist with the local business owners in Hampden and the larger Baltimore community."

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