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Holiday shopping season begins

Langley resident Veronica vonAllworden packs her car with Thanksgiving groceries Wednesday as the holiday shopping rush began on South Whidbey. Merchants all over the island were expecting business to pick up this weekend as shoppers start buying for Christmas. - Matt Johnson
Langley resident Veronica vonAllworden packs her car with Thanksgiving groceries Wednesday as the holiday shopping rush began on South Whidbey. Merchants all over the island were expecting business to pick up this weekend as shoppers start buying for Christmas.
— image credit: Matt Johnson

There's nothing like a good year of spending to make shoppers cautious just in time for the holidays.

Though riding some of the best retail sales numbers ever, Island County merchants were as circumspect as shoppers this week as the holiday shopping season began.

State Department of Revenue figures show total sales topping $280 million in the first two quarters of 2002 amongst all the businesses in the county and its cities. At the same time, sales tax collections were up in Langley, Coupeville and unincorporated Island County.

But with a significant portion of those tax collections coming from construction and other sales, retailers were still wondering when the money would come walking in the door Friday. On the biggest shopping day of the year, based on past years, some merchants were doing better than others. Just before noon Friday, Marsha Klein, owner of The Heron in Langley, was still waiting for the throng of people in the streets to start stepping into the store. Although the city was as full of off-island shoppers and their cars as it is on a summer weekend, Klein had yet to feel their presence through her cash register.

"You get people wandering in, wandering out saying they're looking for ideas," she said.

So far, 2002 has not been the best year in the history of Klein's apparel store. Sales were generally down compared to last year from April through November, she said. As for the holiday season, she said she would "see how it goes."

"The weekend after Thanksgiving is usually pretty good," Klein said.

Down the road in Bayview, Island residents were hitting at least one retailer pretty hard. As they do every year, the staff of Casey's Crafts was holding the store's annual post-Thanksgiving sale. Store manager Patty Currier said the sale got a big start at 6:30 a.m. with the rush just starting to peter out at 10 a.m.

"It'll be busy again at 8 tonight," she said as she helped a line of customers.

But predicting shopper behavior for the remainder of the year went beyond what they did on the first day of the holiday shopping season. Sales have varied for merchants throughout the year, with some claiming to be up over previous years and others noting flat or declining sales.

Even the shoppers themselves were not entirely certain what and how much they would buy over the next month. Shopping buddies Sandii Berkshire, Lynne Hallgren and Lois Grewar said they were being cautious Friday as they toured shops in Langley. The three, who live in Snohomish County, have been doing their holiday shopping on Whidbey Island for 18 years.

This year, Berkshire said, they were considering their spending choices carefully in an economic climate she believes to be dicey.

"There is not as much free-flowing money," she said.

Hallgren, a retailer herself with her own greenhouse in Snohomish, said the year has been good for her so far. Even so, she was keeping close track of her spending -- at least as well as she could in her favorite shopping spot.

"It's better than the malls," she said of Langley.

Up the island in Coupeville, antique store owner Millie Fonda said she is just hoping shoppers coming to her town continue to buy with regularity. She said she is not expecting to make 40 percent of her annual sales during the holiday season, as some other businesses do. Solid, regular sales from month to month have made 2002 a good year. Fonda said she hopes it stays that way.

"We've maintained pretty average," she said.

Without exception, all Island County cities and the county itself are on track to collect more tax revenue off sales this year than in 2001. However, as noted by Coupeville clerk-treasurer Linda Marsh, the revenue increase is due largely to sources other than retail. For Coupeville, major remodelling projects at the Island County Courthouse and Whidbey General Hospital are responsible for much of the $231,117 in sales tax collections through October. That figure is almost $60,000 greater than at the same time last year.

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