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Willmar, Minn., retailers report shoppers are far more optimistic

Jhaylen Carlson, 3, identifies the characters Tuesday on a table decorated with scenes from the movie "Toy Story" at Runnings Fleet Farm in Willmar. He was Christmas shopping with his parents and sister. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

Holiday shoppers are in a good mood this year. Local retailers say they see signs that customers are shaking off their recession worries and starting to spend again. "We've had days when it seemed like it used to be," said Jan Scheltens, co-owner of Ken's Casuals in downtown Willmar.

Even regional sales representatives are reporting optimism at the stores they supply across southern Minnesota, said Ginny Knapp of Mill Pond Mercantile in New London.

"Our fall and Christmas season has been wonderful. We've had wonderful support from the local community," she said.

"People seem less concerned about the economy right at this moment."

With 10 shopping days left until Christmas, retailers are bracing themselves for the home stretch -- and buoyed by what they've seen so far.

It's an important time of year for merchants, who can ring up nearly 30 percent of their annual profits through holiday sales.

Heading into the holiday season this year, sales forecasts were mixed. University of St. Thomas researchers who study consumer spending patterns predicted a 3.4 percent increase in spending on gifts this year. The National Retail Federation projected sales would rise 2.8 percent. But in a survey this fall by America's Research Group, 27 percent of the respondents said they're spending less for Christmas this year.

With many of its shelves stocked with staples such as dog food and outdoor clothing, Running's Farm and Fleet is more or less "recession-resistant," said store manager Mike Witt.

The cash registers are continuing to ring up a solid performance this season, he said. "We've had a very strong season. I have no complaints. Our sporting goods department has been very strong. Automotive has been very strong."

The days have been hectic "but that's what we love," Witt said.

Compared to a year ago, customer traffic and sales are up at Ken's Casuals, which specializes in big and tall men's clothing.

"We're doing more gift wrapping," Scheltens noted. "There's a good feeling in the air."

Many stores are gearing up for their final push this weekend and next week. Some are offering special deals to lure in last-minute shoppers. Others are extending their hours.

Herberger's is opening its doors at 8 a.m. Tuesday through Thursday this week for a three-day holiday sale. Target has lengthened its holiday hours and will be open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Christmas Eve.

Starting Monday, Mill Pond Mercantile will be open until 7 p.m. every day through Friday, Knapp said. The mercantile and The Happy Sol, a neighboring women's apparel shop in downtown New London, also are hosting a men's night out on Monday from 3 to 7 p.m.

In spite of competition from the chain retailers and big-box stores, locally owned stores are maintaining a loyal following, Knapp said.

"We hear over and over and over from people, 'I know I could get online but I really want to do my shopping locally,'" she said. "Christmas is a time for giving. For the most part I think people are just happy to be out and have money in their pocket again and buy special things for their special people."

One thing retailers haven't had to worry about this year: stormy winter weather.

Shoppers have had mixed reactions. For some, a little snow is necessary to get into a holiday mood, Scheltens said. "I've heard that people don't feel very Christmas-y."

"If it doesn't feel wintry enough, people aren't thinking about Christmas," Knapp agreed.

On the other hand, "when it's easy for people to get around, it definitely makes a good difference," she said.

The lack of snow has been a benefit at Running's, which is open until 9 p.m., Witt said. "The weather's been so nice that our evenings have been very strong with customer traffic."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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