Reason for hope for Aspen retailers? |

Reason for hope for Aspen retailers?

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – The next three weeks are expected to be slam-bang busy for Aspen-area retailers.

Larkin and Carrie Horn, owners of Aspen Eclectic at 635 E. Cooper Ave., say they are more than ready to handle the rush.

“It’s always a slow, gradual build-up to the busy season,” Larkin Horn said. “But you know it’s coming.”

His business formerly specialized in cookware but now offers children’s toys and various gifts. He said December sales don’t make or break his year, but they are significant.

Horn said unlike many areas of the country, Aspen has a special retail period, because sales don’t drop off drastically after Christmas. Business continues to be busy through the first week of January, then slows down a little before picking up in the latter half of the month with the arrival of local special events, such as the Winter X Games.

The Horns were visibly busier Saturday than they were a day earlier, with many shoppers passing through their Aspen Square location and kids trying out different toys and games.

The atmosphere was much the same two blocks away at P.E. 101, which sells women’s clothing and accessories. Owner Joan Teige fielded questions while wrapping gifts.

“This is how Aspen always is,” she said. “There’s a lull before the storm. Then there’s an insane, wonderful, high energy.”

Teige said she expects sales to be on par with late December 2009/early January 2010, “or maybe a little better.”

That’s an opinion shared by Bill Tomcich, president of reservations agency Stay Aspen Snowmass. Though he specializes in lodging information, he said extra visitors to the area can’t help but improve the retail situation.

Earlier this month, he said December reservations were lagging behind last year’s numbers. On Friday, he said there is more cause for optimism.

“Winter bookings have not been spectacular,” he said. “They may be a little better than last year. But with the economic downturn, there is ‘the new normal.’ “

He said people are waiting till the last minute to decide whether to book flights for ski trips. And once they get to the area, they wait until the last minute to purchase the things they need: lodging, day passes, accessories and the like.

“There’s still a lot of caution out there,” Tomcich said.

The big unknown is whether the visitors who start arriving in droves after Christmas will spend freely throughout the community or continue to exercise frugality, he said. But national trends from November point to a retail uptick across the nation, and that’s a good sign locally, he said.

Whatever happens, the outlook is far better than what occurred in late 2008 and early 2009, when the area reeled from the effects of the recession.

An examination of Aspen retail sales figures since 2003, provided by city of Aspen assistant finance director Ashley Ernemann, shows that December is always the top sales month of the year. Sales climbed steadily for four years and peaked at $75.9 million in December 2007, then dropped sharply a year later when they totaled $62.5 million.

There was improvement in December 2009, with sales hitting $65.1 million, a 4.1 percent increase from the same month a year earlier.

High hopes for the upcoming retail and lodging season also have been voiced by Denver-based Mountain Travel Research Program, also known as MTRiP. The group said Friday that November 2010 lodging occupancy was up 14.4 percent from the previous November among the western resort mountain communities it surveys.

As of Nov. 30, bookings for December 2010 were up 4.9 percent compared with the same period last year. For the next six months, overall bookings are up 2.5 percent, with the strongest gains in March and May, according to MTRiP. Lodging rates remain flat compared with last year, however.

Broader economic news may be influencing mountain vacations and planning, MTRiP said. Nationally in November, retailers had their best single month in two years, and the Consumer Confidence Index edged up 8.4 percent.

“With the winter’s booking season well underway and the Christmas season imminent, there is some reason for holiday cheer about the 2010-2011 winter season,” said Ralf Garrison, director of MTRiP. “Despite continued economic uncertainty and a buyer’s market more driven by price than brand loyalty, positive signs do exist.”

Michael Paliga and Peter Calamari, owners of Royal Street Fine Art on South Mill, said business this month is proving to be better than it was in December 2009.

Specifically, it’s 10 percent higher, and shoppers don’t seem to be as frugal as they have been over the previous two Decembers, Paliga said.

“The high-dollar items are selling well,” Calamari said.

Other retail managers in Aspen contacted for this story echoed those comments, saying sales are tracking slightly above last year’s figures. However, many declined to discuss matters on the record, citing corporate policies.

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