A couple weeks before Christmas, Parker Helton was browsing at the Dimond Mall in South Anchorage, looking for presents with his girlfriend. Normally, he prefers shopping online for the convenience, but this year there are shipping delays and out-of-stock notices to contend with.
“We definitely ordered online first, but it doesn’t seem like it’s coming in time for Christmas. So we just came to get a few things,” said Helton, who’s from Talkeetna.
While things are quiet on Monday around lunchtime, retailers say that they’re actually seeing an encouraging bounce back from a bleak 2020, despite still relatively high case rates and a new variant circulating. They say things have been pretty busy.
“Honestly, we are pretty excited to say that traffic levels are really returning to pre-COVID levels,” said Logan Burt, marketing director for the Dimond Center. “Especially on the weekends. I mean, you’re gonna have to drive around a bit to find a parking spot.”
Burt said shipping delays are one factor driving last-minute shoppers to the mall. Another is pent-up demand. He said online stores may have diverted more sales early on in the pandemic, but now people are looking to get back to in-person shopping.
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“There was a term in the industry called ‘revenge spending’ or ‘revenge shopping’ because they weren’t able to do it in person when we were locked down and so everyone has the desire to do it now,” he said.
Data show consumers nationwide are spending more this season than last year, according to Jon Bittner, executive director of the Alaska Small Business Development Center. That’s despite the higher prices brought on by inflation. He said the increase is in part due to pent up demand, but also wage increases.
“Sort of depends on what industry you’re in, but generally speaking, most positions that are out there are paying more than they have in recent memory,” said Bittner. “I think some studies say that it’s a 20-year high in terms of wage increases.”
Safety concerns about COVID are still at play, but the vaccine has helped to lower that barrier, Bittner said. And that’s good news for the local economy this holiday season.
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“I think there’s a lot more interest in buying local, there’s a lot more people pushing that message across a lot of different platforms, and people are looking for excuses to go out and sort of support their local businesses,” he said.
Christmas shopping is a good excuse to check out local shops for many. Anchorage resident Josh Branstetter stopped at the mall during a work break to look for a Christmas present for his son.
“I was going to get my son a Demon Slayer figurine because he loves the anime,” he said. “And so he’s super excited. And I wanted to surprise him.”
The figurine was easy enough to find, but supply chain problems have made it difficult to find other things, like the Playstation 5 his son wanted or the manga books he’s been wanting to read.
“I’ve gone to retailers over the last six months trying to get this one volume. And they’re like, ‘Sorry, it’s out of print, you can put it on hold,’” said Branstetter.
Two weeks after putting the book on hold, the store called him to say his hold had been pushed back three months.
“They’re like, ‘The paper’s just not available,’ which is such a weird thing to hear, the paper’s not available,” he said.
Branstetter is vaccinated against COVID-19 and got his booster, which he said makes daily interactions and in-person shopping feel safer and more comfortable this year.
“I did all my shopping online last Christmas. I don’t remember if shipping was hard back then. But I do remember things were so crazy that we didn’t even get a lot of presents,” he said. “Last year’s Christmas feels like — I don’t know, feels like a ghost.”
Burt, with the Dimond Center, said as Christmas approaches, in-person shopping should stay strong.
“People like me who like to shop last minute — I mean, it’s impossible to order online at this point because of being out of stock or not being able to get here in time and so I think that absolutely drives traffic to places like this,” he said.
He said many of the mall’s tenants are showing encouraging sales so far this season — more than half have even beat sales some months compared to 2019, before the pandemic.