December 25. 2012 9:55PM

Holiday shopping numbers buoy Granite State merchants

New Hampshire Union Leader

When the final chapter is written on the 2012 holiday shopping seasons, it's likely to record this was the year that holiday spending finally got back to where it was before the Great Recession started in 2008.

Although final figures won't be available until early January, estimates suggest that in-store and online sales for the 2012 holiday season, from early November to the end of December, will top 2007 by 10 percent. When adjusted for five years of inflation, that's basically about even.

"In real terms, it will have taken about five years for U.S. retail sales to get back to pre-recession levels," according to a year-end analysis published by FTI Consulting, which produces an annual report on retail activity. "This is without precedent in the post-war period."

Sales overall are up from last year by 3 to 5 percent, depending on the analysis. The National Retail Federation reports that total holiday season sales will be up 4 percent from 2011, from $563 billion to $586 billion, with online sales growing to nearly 10 percent of the total.

Canadian shoppers

Nancy Kyle, president and CEO of the New Hampshire Retail Merchants association, said the lack of a sales tax makes it difficult to track holiday sales in the Granite State to any degree of certainty, but the anecdotal evidence she is hearing from members is consistent with national figures, if not a little better.

"Because of our lack of a sales tax, we do so much better in retail sales than any of our surrounding states on a per-capita basis," she said. "It's not that people in our state spend a lot more; it's because of all the cross-border shopping."

Annual retail sales per capita in New Hampshire average $19,000 a year, compared to a U.S. average of $13,000.

Canadian visitors helped boost holiday sales this year, Kyle said, thanks in part to changes in duty-free regulations that took effect in June. Canadians who visit the U.S. for more than 24 hours are now allowed to bring home $200 in duty-free goods, a four-fold increase from the previous limit. For visits lasting longer than 48 hours, the limit was doubled from $400 to $800.

A favorable exchange rate, mild winter weather and the opening of some major new retail destinations added to the increase in cross-border traffic, she said.

"It's just been a pretty good year for retail in the state," Kyle said. "We're seeing a lot of people coming down from Canada. Add to that, we had some really good retail openings in the past year - Lord and Taylor opened in the spring in the Mall at Rockingham Park, and the upscale outlet mall opened in Merrimack in the summer."

While the mild winter has been a boon for cross-border shoppers, it hasn't helped businesses that rely on snow. "Retailers who need a good snowfall, are not off to a good start this year, ski shops, etc.," said Kyle. "Everyone else seems to be doing well."

Full parking lots

Jack Toscano, general manager of the Mall of New Hampshire in Manchester, doesn't have any hard numbers on holiday sales, either, but has his own barometer ­­- the parking lot.

"The volume of traffic in the parking lot has been about where we expected it to be, same as last year," he said. "The weather has cooperated with us this year, as it did last year, where we didn't have a snowstorm that cut out a day or two of shopping."

Some of the busiest days of the holiday season come after the holiday, but before the new year, he said.

"We're expecting much of the same, especially on Wednesday, the day after Christmas," Toscano said. "We get a very big response from our customers the day after Christmas and that whole week. The kids are on vacation, and they'll be here using the gift cards they received for the holidays."

Toscano started at the Manchester mall four years ago, when traffic was dropping from year to year, and he has seen the improvement, starting last year. "I would say that 2011 and 2012 have been very similar as far as traffic goes, certainly better than 2010 and 2009," he said.

Downtown merchants

Sara Beaudry, director of marketing and public relations for Intown Manchester, said downtown merchants for the most part seem pleased with their holiday sales. "I haven't gotten specific numbers, but from what I gather, they are doing well and are quite busy," she said.

The Holiday Market, hosted by Intown Manchester indoors at Brady Sullivan Plaza, attracted 40 vendors and good-sized crowds in its second year, she said. The market was open every Thursday between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and on Saturday, Dec. 15, offering arts, crafts, jewelry, home décor, baked goods and other New Hampshire-made items.

"We were thrilled to see how many people came to our market, then went to other downtown shops to complete their shopping list," she said.

One of those shops, With Heart and Hand, has seen good holiday sales. "We're very busy. It's been a delightful season," said Kathy Hamel, owner of the shop, whose motto is "helping you make your house a home."

Hamel has been at 823 Elm St. for years, and has many returning customers. "They keep me in business and actually make me want to stay in business," she said. "I love seeing them."

Vino Aromas, wine retail and wine bar, opened a year and a half ago at 997 Elm, and has seen business grow by 9 percent, this holiday season versus last, according to owner Dan Villa Franca. The idea of trying the wine before you buy it appears to be catching on. "We're the only self-serve wine bar in the state," he said.

Cautious optimism

From the major mall anchors, to the unique shops that line Elm Street, merchants seem cautiously optimistic, echoing the summary in the FTI Consulting report: "The 'shop till you drop' mantra may be gone, but it appears that U.S. shoppers again are defying conventional wisdom just when a prolonged period of spending restraint seemed inevitable. People have been spending with some signs of vigor, and sales trends across many product and store categories are mildly encouraging."

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Dave Solomon may be reached at