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Henry retailers prepare for the holiday season
Local Big Lots store is chain's top performer

By Valerie Baldowski

vbaldowski@henryherald.com

Despite the current bleak economy, Henry County retailers are hoping for a merry holiday shopping season this year.

Because of high gas prices, layoffs and a general economic slowdown, sales everywhere this year have been down compared to last year. But stores are already turning their attention to salvaging what they can of the rest of the 2008 shopping season.

Tanger Outlets in Locust Grove is in the beginning stages of preparing for Christmas shoppers willing to part with their money. Mall Manager Holly Duffey said she is hoping for a good crowd, adding that stores everywhere are facing the same question of whether sales this season will be strong.

"We're cautiously optimistic about a good holiday season," she said. "Every retail facility has taken a hit."

Duffey said what will help Tanger boost sales is, the shopping center is well known for its good mix of stores and discounted outlet pricing compared to other full-price stores. Because of high prices, she said, the latest shopping trend is toward outlet centers. "We're definitely drawing that traffic there."

Sales at the higher-end stores at Tanger, such as Banana Republic, Coach, Polo, J. Crew, Bath and Body Works and Ann Taylor, have remained constant, and balanced out the other stores there. "They have weathered [the slow economy] very well and actually have seen an [overall] increase in sales," she said. "We have at least maintained."

After the initial slowdown earlier this year, Duffey has seen a gradual increase in sales starting in October corresponding to a gradual drop in gasoline prices. In addition, now that the presidential election is over, she said more shoppers are willing to relax and spend more. "I think everybody was kind of holding their breath."

David Mann, district manager for the Big Lots store in Stockbridge, said he is optimistic. "I think we're going to do real well," he said. "We've got the latest and the greatest. We're prepared for business."

Mann pointed to the Henry County Big Lots store as a top sales performer. "Stockbridge is one of the best stores we have," he added. "It's the highest volume store in the company, out of 1,400 stores in 48 states."

Because the economy is still shaky, Mann said shoppers may initially be cautious about buying, but will eventually spend money. "There's a little trepidation there," he continued. "People tend to buy at the last minute, especially the way the economy is now."

Debbie Slicker, a manager for Belk Department Store in McDonough, said it's difficult to predict exactly how this year's Christmas shopping season will turn out. "That's a toss up," she said. "It's hard to tell. We are going to have positive thoughts about this holiday season. We're going to hope for the best."

Slicker said shoppers, who are normally careful the rest of the year about extra spending, will buy more at the holidays. "Christmas is one of the times people let loose with money."

The store manager explained that shoppers are more careful now because of the economy and they will use the information they get about sales and discounts to get a good bargain. "They're going to shop the ads and they're going to look for the best prices," she said, adding that compared to other retail stores, Belk is doing well. "They [Belk stores] are actually holding their own."