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Village Merchants: Holiday Shopping off to a Good Start

Southampton Village merchants say people, drawn by the festive atmosphere on Main Street, are opening up their wallets locally.

With the holiday shopping season nearing its midpoint, Southampton business owners are reporting a festive jump in sales due to factors ranging from Main Street charm to rising Internet exposure.

Lindsey Worster, the vice president of brand communications for , a national clothing retailer which opened a shop on Main Street in June, said her store benefitted from the Parade of Lights, a holiday event that packed the village. "A lot of new customers who were out and about discovered us," she said.

Roy Stevenson, owner of the iconic  on Jobs Lane, said the Internet has been a helpful tool for his business. "We send out about 40 packages a day from online orders," he said. "It's amazing what the Internet can mean to even a small store like mine. About a third of our business for the holidays will be online."

Along with a jump in toy sales, around 20 percent more than last year, Stevenson reported a rise in optimism heading into the holiday season. "It's been better than the last two years," he said, tempering his enthusiasm with the timing of Hanukkah, which started early this year. "It's hard to know if that's the reason for the early bump in sales, but all you can really go by is how this time of year compared to last year and things are better. Customers seem more relaxed and upbeat."

Stevenson said his top-selling toy this year – before he sold out – was "Dancing Hot Dog Mickey," a Fisher-Price creation that laughs and tells jokes. "It's one of those must-have items that come around every year," he said. "It should cost about $20 or so but will end up costing more than $100 on eBay."

Stevenson credited the ambiance of the village for the encouraging start to the season. "The village looks absolutely beautiful," he said. "They have local kids dressed as elves, everything is lit up, which not only makes people want to come out and shop but to come out and enjoy the season as well."

Noel Hare, the owner of Herrick Hardware, a linchpin of Main Street since 1865, also said sales were up since last year, but added that expenses, such as insurance costs, spiked as well.

"The pie is still the same basically," Hare said. "But the pieces are a little smaller. But we are a little ahead of where we were last year."

In general, according to Hare, much of the success for Main Street business depends on the weather. "A bad storm can keep people in," he said. At the same time, he said bad weather can sometimes be a boon for his business, as snow shovels and salt fly off the shelves.

Having been on Main Street for well more than a century, Hare said his biggest challenge did not come from keeping up with big chains, but rather from the Internet. But then again, "sometimes people will surf the web for a product and then come in here to purchase it," he added.

While the Internet has made shopping more convenient, technology, in the form of e-readers, hasn't doomed book sales as many have predicted, at least according to Charline Spektor, the co-owner of . "Sometimes readers want to go on to their iPads, but at the end of the day, especially in the Hamptons, people want to relax with the feel of a book in their hands."

Like her fellow merchants, Spektor reported a surge in sales and said "Hero," by Michael Korda, "Cleopatra," by Stacy Schiff and Nora Ephron's collection of essays, "I Remember Nothing," were her top nonfiction sellers and "A Visit From The Goon Squad," by Jennifer Egan and the new translation of Boris Pasternak's classic "Doctor Zhivago" were her best sellers in fiction. Spektor said she was also excited about her new line of classical and jazz CDs. "We did very well with them in our  so we decided to bring them over to Southampton."

Stevenson said it was hard to gauge the impact of "Small Business Saturday," an initiative to shop locally sponsored by American Express that launched on November 27. As part of its push to get shoppers into local stores, American Express offered cardholders a $25 credit for using their cards at local shops through December. "I think it probably helped," Stevenson said. "But it's hard to know the benefit from it because customers using an American Express card didn't have to announce if they had enrolled or not. But we let all of our Facebook friends know about it and I really appreciate American Express for trying to help out."

Though the mood on Main Street may be cheery, many merchants have felt the sting of the sluggish economy with some mainstays, including Saks Fifth Avenue in Southampton Village and Citarella in Water Mill, closing shop for good.

President Bob Schepps summed up the advent of the season: "We have very resilient and smart business owners," he said. "For those of us who have survived, it's as they say, 'Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger.' No matter how often we may get knocked down we never seemed to get knocked down for good."

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