PUBLISHED: 4:06 PM on Wednesday, December 5, 2007
Southeast businesses prepare for holidays
The sounds of tourists have slowed down to a crawl with locals minding their daily lives, but as the holidays have arrived, a new season of shopping has begun. Handmade goods, knitted scarves, gorgeous blown glass ornaments and more are all part of the festive "cheer." Beginning the day after Thanksgiving, the craze of shopping grabs a hold of us and doesn't let go until after Christmas.

In Southeast Alaska, holiday shopping plays a significant role for the economy. Some people travel to Seattle and compile gifts and others order off the Internet. In small communities, taking advantage of local offerings keeps the economy thriving.

"It is vital to any community that their citizens support their local businesses. It makes good sense in so many ways," said CEO Cathie Roemmich, of Juneau Chamber of Commerce.

"Shopping locally gives businesses the ability to support so many important local organizations, like school activities, the Juneau Symphony, Lions Clubs, United Way, SAIL, Girl Scouts and local sports, just to name a few, and there are literally hundreds. Keeping your shopping dollars at home really makes a difference," she said.

According to Forrester Research, US online retail sales will reach $33 billion this holiday season.

Sources state that 75.9 percent of retailers remain optimistic about the holiday season in spite of the uncertain economy.

Various communities contribute to the economy with a large event usually involving markets, fairs, gallery walks or festivities that assist in gaining dollars. The concept of a large community involved event has evolved from ages ago.

Recently, Juneau celebrated with the Public Market, which involves retail and food booths a plenty. Hundreds of people showed up to enjoy the cultural and community experience. An old tradition that takes place the day after Thanksgiving since 1983, people begin their Christmas season shopping at Centennial Hall. The festive gift show features 125 to 150 vendors from areas all over Alaska selling their wares.

In Sitka, locals look forward to a similar market, the Sitka Artisan Market, which is also a three-day event beginning Friday, December 7 through Sunday, December 9.

The Market is free and open to the public; an extravaganza of quality handcrafted goods from Alaskan artists and craftsmen. Products featured include jewelry, Native arts and crafts, shelf-stable foods, clothing, note cards and prints and more.

"The Sitka Artisans Market is a community-enhancing project of the Sitka Business Resource Center project at Sitka Works," according to coordinator Holly Keen.

Instead of locals traveling "down South," people are traveling to visit Sitka.

It has been successful enough for the participating vendors that we have continually been able to attract artisans from as far away from Anchorage, and other communities to the north, said Sitka Works Director Sheila Finkenbinder.

"As it is not cheap to travel to Sitka, and the number of shoppers at our Market pales in comparison to Juneau's Public Market, the success of the Market speaks well for the quality of the artisans' products and the enthusiasm of the shoppers' reactions to their offerings," she said.

"While the market is primarily a retail shopping venue, some wholesale business is also conducted between the artisans and local retailers. This event is a positive effort towards community economic development, by encouraging and nurturing Alaskan micro-entrepreneurs."

The Market is sponsored by all five banks in Sitka, as well as the Sitka Economic Development Association, the Hames Corporation and the Greater Sitka Chamber of Commerce.

Sitka also offers tax free days and businesses expand hours with the busiest time taking place two weeks after Thanksgiving.

"The holiday season is definitely a financial shot in the arm during the tourism off season. In the past some businesses have completely re-merchandised for the different seasons," said executive director Andrea Keikkala, of Greater Sitka Chamber of Commerce.

Wrangell gets into the groove with shopping venues such as the Harvest Festival in October, Midnight Madness and Tax Free Day for the holidays.

"During Tax Free day the (economic) impact is huge. A lot of people take advantage from Wrangell and other communities, and the town generates a lot of revenue," said Cori Robinson, of Wrangell Chamber of Commerce.

Midnight Madness involves a flux of people out shopping late and shopping heavy, Robinson said.

Working to share flavors of other states, Petersburg businesses go to market to find creative and wonderful items to sell to the community.

"They work hard to compete with the internet/catalog shoppers and I think they do a great job all year long. We have lots of positive comments from visitors about the variety and quality they find in our shops. They appreciate not finding the same items everywhere they look," said Sally Dwyer, of Petersburg Chamber of Commerce.

The Petersburg Chamber of Commerce promotes the Oktoberfest ArtShare with one of non-profit organization Muskeg Maleriers.

The event, a large bazaar with handmade items such as pottery, weavings, quilts, journals, calendars, candles, soaps, cards, jewelry and more.

"The Retail Committee promotes weekly Friday night specials like Men's Night Out or Just for Kids during December. The businesses extend their hours right up to Christmas Eve for shoppers and are open on Sundays too," she said.

Usually the busiest shopping days are two to three days before Christmas, Dwyer said.

Holiday traditions are another great way to keep communities thriving.

Petersburg offers the Festival of Lights parade the day after Thanksgiving.

"Santa leads 400 plus down Main Street with candle cups and light sticks to the Community Tree where a local person is honored as the "Lighter of the Tree."

There is music and hot cider and it is the first night of late shopping," Dwyer said.

Additional Petersburg events include Handel's Messiah, free to the public; the Nutcracker ballet; and on the second Wednesday is the Sons of Norway annual pickled herring, smoked salmon and pickled fish contest, which gives bragging rights for a year.

"Probably the most enjoyed event is the Julebukking, a Norwegian tradition where businesses provide food and beverages to shoppers on or about Christmas Eve," she said.

"The whole town eats and drinks their way from store to store while they shop, comparing who has what and where, and who is not to be missed."

Local fare that days includes Cajun shrimp, pickled crabtails, lefse, fudge, hot pastrami sandwiches, smoked salmon, eggnog, fishcakes and krumkake.

In Ketchikan, Wal-Mart and the local mall opened early, touting all of the expected early morning sale specials on Black Friday, after Thanksgiving.

The Plaza mall kicked off its extended holiday shopping hours as well as the start of its holiday season "Weekend Bazaars" with local crafts and goods.

The Ketchikan Area Arts & Humanities Council also kick off the holiday shopping season last weekend with its annual Winter Arts Festival, a single event.

"They rent out our local civics center; it is much larger and not necessarily the same clientele. This is in conjunction with the downtown merchants and Galleries staying open later in the evening," said executive director Blaine Ashcraft, of Greater Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce.

"The business community works hard to try and fill the needs of the local market. The dollars spent here, stay here," Roemmich said.