As with most things, there have been mixed messages in the media about whether consumer spending this holiday season has been good or bad.
With a strong start in November, retailers around the country have reported slipping sales figures each week in December. Even so, the National Retail Federation reported a 4.7 percent rise in November retail sales over the previous year, and maintains that overall sales for the season will see a 3.9 percent rise, totalling $602.1 billion. A final figure will be known in January.
Although still better than in previous years, the rate of growth is still seen as disappointing. A number of factors have been blamed, with long-term trends such as stagnating wages and a malingering economy taking the finger, as well as peculiarities to this year ranging from adverse weather to a truncated shopping season.
Mall merchants mind their kiosks in the atrium of Dakota Square in Minot the morning before Christmas.
Retailers' reactions have been aggressive: opening earlier and for longer, offering wider discounts and upping their advertising game. Many opened on Thanksgiving Day itself, and in the final weekend leading up to Christmas Day a number of Minot-area retail outlets kept marathon hours.
It was the first year Minot's Best Buy store opened on Thanksgiving, at 6 p.m. "We saw a lot of traffic," said the store's general manager, Mike Tornatore. "I would say we saw more than I was expecting. It was 'all hands on deck.'"
While not staying open around the clock like Kohl's, Macy's and Kmart in the run-up to Christmas, Best Buy nonetheless joined in with aggressive holiday hours starting last Friday, opening from 7 a.m. til midnight except on Sunday, when it opened at noon, in keeping with North Dakota's "blue laws" curtailing certain economic activities on Sunday mornings.
He explained the added hours were not part of an effort to boost any flagging sales. "The strategy here is we want our customers to shop when they want to shop," particularly other retail staffers who this year have to work unorthodox hours. By staying open beyond typical times, the store allows those an opportunity to get in some shopping of their own.
Though he could not relate any specific figures, Tornatore said the strategy seemed to be effective. When asked if he thought the expanded hours would become a seasonal standard, he replied, "Yes, I think that will continue."
"We have done very well," said Minot's assistant manager at Barnes & Noble, Sue Brown, of her store's season.
"'Elf on the Shelf' was big," and "anything 'Minecraft' sold like crazy." She also reported that the two volumes of the "Ghosts of North Dakota" series sold very well. The book fair groups which came and read also proved popular. "That's always a hit," Brown said, to be repeated again in coming years.
Like other retailers, Barnes and Noble extended its hours, opening from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. However, Brown felt the store's earlier start was unnecessary, with morning traffic not noticeably improved by the change.
As stores transition back to their regular times and appearances, their holiday season is still far from over. With the rising use of gift cards and an inevitable deluge of returns and exchanges, most retailers will continue to be busy into the new year, long after the last bits of holly and festive baubles go back into storage.
"We're gradually changing now," said Brown, taking down the Christmassy color scheme and transitioning into a health and fitness theme, for people keen to work away their holiday-accumulated flub.
We'll probably start doing that Thursday," Tornatore said of removing the ornaments. The holiday season for Best Buy will continue unadorned through January. "There will be some really great deals gift card promos coming up," he explained. "We're going to have clearance areas set up in the store," he added, specializing in the stores "open-box" pricing of returned electronics.
Concrete figures for how Minot retailers fared this sale season are not yet available but the city's promotional bureau, Visit Minot, will be able to put out some estimates in the coming weeks. Due to the oil activities in the Bakken, North Dakota has been an economic aberration of sorts, and consumers may not be under the same economic pressures as people in other parts of the country.