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Despite flood-closed stores, holiday shoppers buoyant in downtown Westport

Updated 5:47 pm, Monday, November 26, 2012

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  • Shoppers flocked to Main Street in downtown Westport on Black Friday. Friday, Nov. 23, 2012/ Westport, CT Photo: Paul Schott / Westport News
    Shoppers flocked to Main Street in downtown Westport on Black Friday. Friday, Nov. 23, 2012/ Westport, CT Photo: Paul Schott

 

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Striking a pose in their sequined cocktail dresses, the mannequins in the front window of the BCBG MaxAzria women's clothing store on Main Street seem to beckon passersby to stop at their retail hangout.

Like many downtown shoppers Saturday, Ridgefield resident Jenna Clay spotted those chic storefront hosts before heading for the front door. But when she reached for the handle, Clay spotted a handwritten sign that read: "CLOSED until further notice ..."

"Oh, they're closed," she said, with a note of disappointment in her voice. "That's too bad."

She cupped a hand over eyes to peer into the dimly lit showroom, before she turned to resume her stroll down Main Street with her husband, David.

The Clays' brief stop outside BCBG was not the only shuttered storefront they encountered during the middle of a busy shopping day at the start of the holiday season.

Next door, Banana Republic was closed and, across the street, the Nike Running, Allen Edmonds and Chico's outlets were dark as well Saturday afternoon.

Almost a month after Superstorm Sandy struck Westport, a number of downtown storefronts are still closed because of heavy flooding during the storm, triggered when the storm surge caused the nearby Saugatuck River to overflow. Neighboring merchants said they are keen for those businesses to bounce back soon -- in part, to bolster the flow of foot traffic in the town center during the crucial holiday shopping season between Black Friday and the new year.

"We're doing fine here, but we don't like to see any our neighbors closed," said Angela Goodfriend, manager of Shoes `N' More on Main Street. "The quicker they re-open, the better."

Lisa Parrelli Gray, executive director and president of the Westport-Weston Chamber Commerce, also underscored the importance of national chains to the downtown economy during the holiday season.

"I definitely think the independent retailers will hold their own, but it does concern me that major national retailers like Nike and Banana Republic are still closed," she said. "I think they have a responsibility to open for their Main Street and Post Road East neighbors. It impacts everybody when a huge corner or part of the street is not open for business."

Sandy was also disruptive and costly for many downtown retailers because the flooding claimed valuable inventory. At Klaff's Lighting of Westport on Post Road East, the flood waters rose to 6 feet in the basement. Much of the store's stock in its showroom was also damaged.

"It was pretty bad," Jim McGinnity, Klaff's of Westport's assistant manager, said of the inundation. "We're trying to get everything into shape. We just hope to get better and keep driving."

Flooding also ruined much of the merchandise at the Age of Reason toy store on Post Road West on the west side of the town center. But the outlet's shelves were fully stocked on Black Friday as customers streamed in during the afternoon.

"We're hopeful for a good year," owner Dina Berger said of her expectations for the holiday season. "A small increase over last year is what we're hoping for."

Maintaining inventory and ringing up sales during the next few weeks is imperative for independent business owners like Berger. Many of them expect to record between 25 and 35 percent of their annual revenue during the stretch from Black Friday to New Year's Day.

Unlike many national retailers, however, most small business owners in Westport's town center do not treat Black Friday as a seismic retail event. Several independent downtown retailers instead ascribe more importance to the American Express-sponsored Small Business Saturday. Held each year the day after Black Friday, Small Business Saturday spotlights independent establishments and offers shoppers an American Express card statement credit when they patronize small businesses participating in the event.

"That's sort of our kickoff to the holiday season," Faye Kim, owner of the Faye Kim Designs jewelry store on Main Street, said of Small Business Saturday. "Black Friday doesn't really appeal to us or doesn't really affect us."

On Small Business Saturday and throughout the holiday shopping season, many downtown merchants say long-time customers will be critical to their holiday-season performance.

"I'm optimistic about the next few weeks," said Celeste Puglisi, co-owner of The Brownstone, a fashion and home accessories boutique on Main Street. "I know that our customers are loyal and love to shop here.

Despite the stores that remain closed after Sandy, shoppers turned out in large numbers in the downtown area on Black Friday and Small Business Saturday. Several downtown patrons interviewed by the Westport News during the Thanksgiving weekend said they prefer the retail experience in the town center to mall shopping.

"We don't really shop in malls," said Orange resident Lauren Paup on Black Friday afternoon after a visit with her mother to the Jonathan Adler home furnishings store on Main Street. "We're not mall people. It's nice to be able to hit all the stores and be outside."

For a number of shoppers, the selection and quality of stores in downtown Westport superseded bargain-hunting as their main motivation for coming here.

"I think the downtown has a great range of stores," said Shelby Byron, who traveled from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., with her husband, daughter and parents. "There's diversity in what's on offer and I think there's something for everyone here."

And despite missing out on a trip to some of the shuttered stores, the Clays also said they were pleased with their trip to the town center.

"We like it here," said David Clay. "There's a good atmosphere, much better than the malls. It's been a good day."

pschott@bcnnew.com; 203-255-4561, ext. 118; twitter.com/paulschott