City Merchants Tally Holiday Sales

Friday January 02, 2004

The Christmas shopping season fortunes of Berkeley’s independent merchants proved as varied as the inventories of the shops and stands that line city boulevards, according to interviews with shopkeepers. 

Though merchants weren’t offering concrete numbers, it appeared that booksellers and high-end boutiques had banner years, while street vendor sales were literally washed away. 

“This might have been our best Christmas ever,” said Shakespeare & Co. co-owner Harvey Segal, surpassing similarly positive reviews from other book sellers on Telegraph and Solano Avenues. 

Though most Berkeley retailers reported a December sales spike, David Fogarty of the city’s Office of Economic Development said Christmas isn’t as pivotal for Berkeley merchants. 

“We don’t have the kind of stores (toy stores and department stores) that generate big holiday business,” he said. “At a lot of the important stores in Berkeley purchasing is more equally dispersed throughout the year.” 

Nationally, December retail sales rose four percent in the days leading up to Christmas—the biggest jump since 1999—said International Council of Shopping Centers spokesperson Stacey Szluka. 

Leading the charge were apparel and electronics sales, she said—sad news for Berkeley, which saw nearly all of its electronic stores fold or take off to Emeryville in the mid-1990s. 

Camera stores—still plentiful in the city—reported robust sales. “We did great,” said Mark Bolt of Sarber’s Cameras of Solano Avenue, adding that many shoppers were in the market for digital cameras and didn’t want to trust their purchases to chain stores that employ camera novices. 

Most clothing merchants also reported stronger sales than last Christmas, though still far below boom year totals of the late 1990s. 

Official December sales figures won’t be available for a couple of months, Fogarty said, but recent city statistics show that, like the rest of Alameda County, Berkeley businesses have suffered through the regional recession. 

Twelve-month figures ending this August show Berkeley sales down 4.2 percent—with apparel sales falling 7.4 percent, recreational products like compact discs, cameras and sporting goods declining 13 percent and miscellaneous retail, mainly books, off 5.6 percent. During the same period, sales in Emeryville dropped 3.3 percent. 

Emeryville—Berkeley’s chain store foil—upped the ante this year with the opening of Bay Street, an upscale mall designed to compete against shops on Berkeley’s Fourth Street. 

Christmas sales at Bay Street weren’t available, but most Fourth Street merchants interviewed said the holidays gave them little relief from a tough year. 

“This has been the worst Christmas in my four years here,” said Cameron Von Ehrenkrook, an employee of April Cornell. She said mid-range boutiques like hers had struggled this year, but the street’s higher end shops like Molly B were doing better. 

That mirrored a nationwide trend, said Szluka. High-end chains like Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and The Sharper Image posted strong seasonal sales, while discounters struggled. 

Wal-Mart announced last week that same store sales growth through Dec. 24 was tracking around three percent—towards the low end of their forecasts. 

For Telegraph Avenue street vendors, the Grinch arrived wearing rain clouds. “Christmas is always a crapshoot. This is two years in a row now where the weather was shit,” said Phil Rowntree, a craftsman and avenue veteran who spent several weekends dodging downpours under a plastic sheath. 

Street vendors said their problems were more than weather related. “This is my season,” said Kymahni as she knitted a hat at her stand. Yet, she said, this year shoppers were buying her cheapest hats and her average weekend earnings has dwindled from $300 in 2000 to $100 this year. “It’s almost gotten to the point where I wonder if it’s worth coming out here anymore.” 

Summertime with its flock of tourists is usually the best season for street vendors, but Rowntree said sales have been down 30- 40 percent since the Sept. 11th attacks, and the ranks of sidewalk stands has been in decline. “You can get a vendor’s license tomorrow morning if you wanted,” he said. “There used to be waiting lists out here.”