— From staff, wire reports
“Jingle Bells” played from the bell tower on top of First Methodist Church as shoppers crowded the Square in downtown Athens Friday looking for a local, last minute gift.
General upward trends in sales this holiday season have marked what some call a revitalization of Athens’ landmarks like U.G. White and downtown buildings.
Even trying to reach out to store owners on the phone, cash registers could be heard in the background printing receipts.
Pimento’s on Market Street was full of customers waiting to pick up gifts adorned with neatly curled ribbon and patterned paper. The cashier said they had been wrapping for the last few days, and even wrapped for one or two ambitious customers back in the summer.
At Trinity’s Gifts & Interiors, storeowner Tammy Strickland said jewelry, scarves and Vera Bradley products were flying off the shelves.
“Sales are up,” Strickland said. “Of course Christmas is so good.”
Both Trinity’s and Pimento’s were open until 2 p.m. on Christmas Eve.
Crawford’s Gifts on Washington Street was open until 4:30.
“I think [sales have] been better,” said Ruby Smith of Crawford’s. “I guess the economy’s been a little better.
Spirit of Athens executive director Trisha Black said the stores downtown have been so busy that she hasn’t even been able to talk to owners to assess sales figures after Christmas Open House in November and the Sippin’ Cider event. Black did say Pimento’s owner Shannon Bryant reported a 15 percent increase in customers from out of town.
The cause might be a different mindset.
“I think that people are thinking more about shopping local,” Black said.
What many customers may not realize, Black said, is that local shops stayed open at least one hour later and held business hours on Christmas Eve, just to accommodate Christmas shoppers.
New businesses have also attracted more shoppers to the Square. In a press release, Spirit of Athens listed two new stores, Craftsman Cottage and Shoe Gallery 2; and three new restaurants that are open or opening with the new year: Casa Blanca Mexican Cantina, Inez’s Soul Food Restaurant and Little Texas Pizza Buffet.
U.G. White owner Pete Woodward said his store was ‘slammed’ with foot traffic. He speculated that if he maintained his current amount of business through Christmas, he would have figures higher than last year. He was pleased with people choosing to shop local.
“That’s very encouraging,” Woodward said.
The Associated Press reported that last year, MasterCard Advisors' SpendingPulse, which charts sales over credit cards and cash, said a whole 24 percent of sales were not accounted for until the last 10 days before Christmas.
But big chains have seen a dismal year with holiday sales, according to the AP. Some announced big discounts and sale events close to Christmas in order to reclaim some of the loss.
A spokeswoman for the Alabama Retail Association, Nancy Dennis, said her organization estimated that $9 billion would be spent by shoppers in Alabama during November and December. She said a 4 percent growth in sales is expected from 2011.
“It’s been a good holiday season so far,” Dennis said, and it could end up being the best Christmas shopping season since the recession.
Nationally retailers are reporting a trend of shoppers showing up late and waiting until the last moment to order online, partly because companies are doing a better job handling late deliveries.
Dennis said the final figures for Christmas shopping won’t be known until people cash in their gift cards. She said the cards have become one of the most popular Christmas gifts.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.