OLIVIA -- For most of the country, the Christmas shopping countdown starts today.
For retailers in rural communities in west central Minnesota, the countdown began sometime in October or early November, when the last of the corn crop was harvested.
"We would expect a strong holiday season,'' said Steve Dirks, of Dirks Furniture in Olivia. Dirks said his store enjoys a loyal clientele due to its reputation, and consequently tends to see good sales during the holiday period.
But Dirks said holiday sales at his store in downtown Olivia -- indeed at stores throughout rural communities in this region -- are also a direct reflection of the farm economy.
Farmers enjoyed a better-than-expected harvest this year, and prices remain strong. "That's what drives the engine around here,'' said Dirks, referring to the farm economy.
It's the fuel for the engine in Dawson as well. Jim Prestholdt, of Jim's Clothing and Sporting Goods, anticipates a busy season, thanks to the health of the farm economy. "I think it will help everybody,'' he said.
Prestholdt successfully woos shoppers who otherwise travel to regional centers like Watertown, S.D., Montevideo and Willmar. He said small-town stores like his have to continually adjust to compete: He has added a full line of embroidery products to his clothing and sporting goods selection.
Thanks to a strong farm economy, he's confident Dawson area customers will be out shopping, and that gives him the opportunity he needs, too. "They've got to come back home too,'' he said.
Shoppers have already been coming home to Clara City Drug and Gift. Owner Mike Fritz said his store is seeing more than the usual number of early season "lookers.'' He said it is an encouraging sign, as is the news from this year's harvest. "There's money out there,'' he said.
But Fritz cautioned that it is too early to predict how that money will be spent. It could be a good year for big ticket items, and that's not always good news for the sales of more modestly priced goods, he said. Consumers who invest a large sum of money in a single big ticket item like a new vehicle, or perhaps farm machinery or land, tend to hold back on other purchases, he said.
Many large discount retailers are going into this season with their eyes wide open, unsure of what consumer spending patterns will be. In Litchfield, Beth Pascoe, manager of the Wal-Mart Supercenter, said it is hard to say what type of holiday shopping the new store will see. She is expecting a busy shopping day today, and believes that this weekend will give her the first real feel for what is ahead.