Year-end shopping rescues retailers

Main Street shops recover after a sluggish start

Second holiday event boosts sales

Howard County

January 05, 2004|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Main Street merchants in Ellicott City were prepared to blame rain and snow for a dismal holiday shopping season. But a surge of shoppers - before Christmas and after - saved the day, many business owners said.

"When the extremes of weather hit, it affects foot traffic and people are going to go to a more protected environment," meaning the malls, said Sally Tennant, who for 23 years has owned Discoveries, which carries an assortment of jewelry, accessories and collectibles.

"But we ended up doing phenomenal in the last week, which was more than I expected," she said.

An early winter's snowstorm that hit Dec. 5 forced the postponement of the 26th annual Midnight Madness festival, the start of Main Street's holiday buying season. The event, in which shops stay open until midnight, attracts hundreds of shoppers and other visitors.

Families come for Santa and caroling, and teen-agers come to stay out late.

"That's like our Black Friday down here," said Alan Carr, an assistant at Three Kings of Egypt, which sells Egyptian collectibles.

Midnight Madness was rescheduled for Dec. 12, but some merchants said the turnout was disappointing.

"We did not come anywhere close to Midnight Madness traffic or sales," said Jim Roberts, who owns Oh My Word Calligraphy, which features the work of about 40 calligraphers and provides custom calligraphy work.

Posters and handouts publicized the new date, but it was hard to get the word out.

"There were a lot of people wandering in and out and hardly buying anything," Carr said. "Usually this street is packed. Everybody's shopping, everybody's carrying bags."

Despite the postponement, some shops stayed open late for shoppers who braved the snow.

"We were open during that mess for some diehards that came out during the crazy weather," said Tennant.

"A number of people came down because it wasn't widely known that it was postponed," said Nicholas E. Johnson, the owner of Su Casa, a home furnishings and accessories store.

To compensate for the scaled-down Midnight Madness, Howard County Tourism sponsored a second holiday shopping event Dec. 20, based on the classic Christmas movie, It's a Wonderful Life.

"It was a different twist, but it was a nice evening and a lot of shops participated," said Frank DiPietro, owner of the toy store Mumbles and Squeaks. Like some other business owners, he had a rush of last-minute shoppers.

"We had a more condensed shopping period," Tennant said.

Although the pre-Christmas shopping season may have been less than bustling, the week after brought a much-needed boost to some businesses.

"We lost two or three days from the snow, and that hurt a lot," merchant Enalee Bounds said last week. "But every other day has been wonderful; I have 40 people standing here now," said Bounds, who owns Ellicott's Country Store.

She said the annual train garden at the B&O Railroad Museum always attracts visitors through the end of December, but this year's post-Christmas crowd was larger than usual.

Rachelina Bonacci, executive director of Howard County Tourism, attributed the influx to some well-timed, high-profile publicity that put Ellicott City in the national spotlight.

A Dec. 26 New York Times story on once-dying communities that remade themselves as antiques destinations featured Ellicott City's historic district as an example of a successful transformation.

Bonacci said the number of visitors to the tourism center last month nearly doubled, compared with last year.

"Just this morning we had 40 visitors before noon, mostly from the New York and New Jersey areas, in response to the New York Times article," Bonacci said last week. "There's just a lot of buzz right now."

Tourists come and go, Tennant said, but it's always the regulars that come through.

"They kind of saved the day," she said, "the loyal, year-after-year customers."

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