Christmas cash registers jingle even in summer Ornaments, dolls lure collectors HOWARD COUNTY BUSINESS

September 09, 1993|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

Just 106 days until Christmas, and Scott Chappelear plans to make the most of them. In fact, he got a jump on Christmas way back in August, when you wouldn't expect even the hardiest elf to have the holiday in mind.

That's when Mr. Chappelear opened his Christmas Spirit store in the Mall in Columbia and found, to his agreeable surprise, that more than a few folks were in the mood for all things Christmas.

"We did a lot better than I really expected," said Mr. Chappelear.

Mr. Chappelear planned to open a store in the mall on a short-term lease, from about October until January, and then depart -- as he has done for the past decade. But when a shop location opened up, he decided to see what business was like in the dog days of summer, a sluggish time of the year for almost any retail venture.

When business volume exceeded his expectations, he began to mull making the Columbia shop a year-round operation. He's now discussing with the Rouse Co., owner and manager of the mall, the possibility of an annual lease.

"So far we've never had a day when we didn't have sales," said Mary Ellis, manager of the Columbia store.

Mr. Chappelear, along with other family members, operates four year-round Christmas shops. The flagship shop is in Annapolis, opened in 1977. Christmas Spirit shops are also in Ocean City and Rehoboth Beach, Del.

"Generally we've found that a big part of our market is among tourists," Mr. Chappelear said. "Women, in particular, like to buy a Christmas ornament or collectible item as a keepsake from their trip."

Average spending by shop customers per store visit: $40.

But the market for products with a Christmas theme, from tree ornaments to artsy Santa dolls and nativity figurines strictly for the serious collector, has expanded considerably because the number of collectors has grown dramatically.

Christmas-theme collectibles, from nutcrackers to nativities, are among the most widely collected items on the market today, says Gifts & Decorative Accessories, a retail industry trade journal.

Collecting Christmas-related items has become "a prestigious hobby," the journal reports in its June issue.

Columbia resident Judy Sester lights up like a Christmas tree at the thought of adding to her collection of doll-size ceramic homes and buildings marketed by Dept. 56 Inc., a national distributor of a series of Christmas-oriented villages and accessories.

Homes and buildings, which cost between $40 and $60 on average, are enormously popular with customers, said Mrs. Ellis, the manager of the Columbia store.

"They are very definitely a collector item. People come in and ask for a very specific piece," she said. "Some people leave the villages up all year in their homes."

Each year distributors issue new buildings and accessories for collectors. Mrs. Sester said she started hunting for this season's issues last week. She stopped into the Christmas Spirit shop to see if the store had the replicas and accessories in stock, in particular a snow-draped mountain with trees issued this season to use as a backdrop for the village.

"I've got five kids to shop for so if I want to add to my collection I've got to start looking in August," she said.

The other collectible line Christmas Spirit carries that customers snap up is a series of doll carolers in Victorian clothes that stand about 10 inches tall, Mrs. Ellis said.

The dolls, made by Byers' Choice, Ltd, a Chalfont, Pa., company, range in price from about $25 to $45. The series includes several dolls modeled on the characters in the Charles Dickens classic, "A Christmas Carol," including Ebenezer Scrooge.

Like Dept. 56, Byers' Choice also issues new items each season. The latest characters are always a sure sell, Mrs. Ellis said.

She predicts that while the Byers' Choice carolers and Dept. 56 villages will enjoy strong sales this season, the hottest product line may be an inexpensive series of tree ornaments of mice characters.

The line, which includes mice on skis, mice in old phone booths, and mice with angel wings and trumpets, sell for between $3 and $7.

"We carried only a few of them last year and we couldn't keep them in the store," Mrs. Ellis said. "This year we're prepared with a full series. People go wild when they see them. It's crazy."

Another inexpensive item that should be hot is squiggly strands of a vine-like material covered with sparkling gold paint, an artistic flare in tree decor.

Last year, the store used the decorations to adorn one of the many synthetic Christmas trees set up to showcase the vast array of ornaments for sale.

"People were crazy for them," Mrs. Ellis said. "They got mad when we told them they weren't for sale. This year they've ordered plenty of them. I think they'll sell well. They're only $1."

She has found that items showcased on the Christmas trees tend to generate strong sales.

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