Ames sees strong start to holiday shopping season

Ornaments from India, left, and Bangladesh from Worldly Goods are fair-trade, handmade gifts. Shops in the Main Street Cultural District decided to have sales from 2-5 p.m. on Black Friday, instead of the typical early-bird rush.

Sarah Binder

One car circled the deserted parking lot at 2:30 a.m.

The radio was tuned to Lite 104.1, continuous holiday music.

By 4 a.m., the three boys were poring over sweaters and scarves at Younkers.

At 5, breakfast at Jimmy John’s was in order.

But Ryan Schumacher, Jake Swegle, and Kyle Henry, all seniors at Nevada High School, weren’t at North Grand Mall for the Black Friday deals — they hadn’t purchased anything, and didn’t plan to. They were celebrating the social aspect of the holiday.

“We’re people watchers,” Schumacher said.

They had plenty of people to watch at North Grand Mall that morning. At 7 a.m., a gift bag giveaway drew a line of more than 200 people.

“It’s a good day for people who want to make it an event,” said Liesl Eathington, an economist at Iowa State who published a report on Black Friday shopping.

Three generations of the Porrez family — a grandmother, mother and daughter — arrived at North Grand Mall from Fort Dodge at 4 a.m.

Kathy Porrez, 60, said the shopping experience at North Grand is superior to anything in Fort Dodge, so they come every year. For them, big name stores such as Younkers, JC Penney, Aeropostale and Victoria’s Secret are worth the drive.

Jack Fahler, general manager of North Grand Mall, said stores in the mall reported strong Friday sales, and early indicators predict a strong holiday season overall.

Although watchdog groups, such as the National Retail Federation, have increased their attention on “Cyber Monday,” or the Monday after Thanksgiving, and consumers continue to shop online for convenience, Fahler said the mall experience still has benefits.

“Shoppers like to see and touch merchandise that they are considering for holiday gifts,” Fahler wrote in an e-mail, “and, of course there’s the traditional visit with Santa Claus so children can share their holiday wish lists.”

For those who prefer to avoid the early-bird deals and lines, the Main Street Cultural District provided a different experience. Melanie Christian, manager of Worldly Goods, said the district’s shops had considered opening early, but most kept their normal hours for the day.

However, Christian said, although the district has always seen shoppers on Black Friday, they are trying to develop more traffic on the big day. Many shops such as Worldly Goods, Gilger Designs, Sigler on Main, It’s All About Me! and Miss Meyer’s Clothing Consignment had deals from 2 to 5 p.m.

Worldly Goods, which sells handmade and fair-trade objects from around the world, featured a different country in a sale each hour.

Christian said her store saw a constant flow of customers all day, from when they opened at 10 a.m.

“It’s nice to see people coming downtown for an alternative shopping experience,” Christian said.

However, the success of chain stores and local shops alike may not necessarily reflect the health of the overall economy. Eathington said it is important to look at longer-term behaviors.

Eathington’s report shows that many economic indicators, such as poverty levels, foreclosure rates and unemployment, are the same or worse than last year in Iowa.

“There are a lot of households that are in worse shape this year than last,” Eathington said. “Holiday shopping is more an indication of consumers’ moods than anything else.”