Holiday Markets: Big Business for Small Business

By Dianne O’Connell

Hundreds of holiday elves in cottages throughout Alaska are busy baking, and sewing, designing and building, snapping and framing, even trapping and tanning – getting ready to sell their wares this winter to thousands of shoppers, in venues like the new Denai’na Convention Center, Josephine’s at the Sheraton Hotel, and dozens of other bazaars and faires throughout southcentral Alaska.

The holidays are big business for these local entrepreneurs – and most are expecting a decent year.

“My sales have been doing nothing but growing,” says Lisa Greenwood, owner of Twinkle Toes and Wild Outer Wear. “The holiday craft and gift shows account for the lion’s share of my business. Where else would thousands of people drop by in a day to check out your merchandise? I can always sell more than I can make.”

“The same goes for Tonia Winkler and her biscottis,” comments Bill Webb, owner of Webb’s Consulting and Management Services, Inc. The company owns and operates three different holiday shows as well as the summer Anchorage Market and Festival.  “I’ll drop by her booth and ask where Tonia is – only to be told that she is home baking.  The biscottis come in, still warm.”

While Tonia warms the tummy, Greenwood warms the toes.  Lisa stitches colorful, stay-on baby booties from her home in Wasilla. She markets the foot ware as “all-terrain socks” which she invented when her oldest child, now 19, was just a toddler.  She began selling the tiny foot ware at gift shows a couple years later and now markets socks in 13 sizes, along with hats, and custom-designed appliquéd jackets.

The infant socks sell for $14 a pair, while men’s sizes go for $25.  The wind-block designer jackets run from $150 to $350 each.

With a surger sewing machine in her bedroom and a large cutting table in her living room, the artist/seamstress sews for four to five hours a day, taking special care with each pair of slipper/socks. 

“The design on the toes has to match, for instance,’ she explains.  “I enjoy the colors and the fabric because they make people happy.”

Operating without a website or even fliers, Greenwood makes contacts during the holiday shows and the summer markets in Anchorage, and fills orders from around the country, throughout the year.

A small retail business is defined by the Small Business Administration as one with less than 100 employees and which grosses less than seven million dollars a year. Lisa Greenwald and her colleagues definitely fit the bill.

“I’ve talked to a number of my fellow vendors, and the downturn in the economy hasn’t affected any of us really,” she says. “I have had some trouble with my suppliers and have had to scrounge around for materials.”

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Bill Webb is the chief elf among the holiday elves in that it is his company that provides the biggest venues for Lisa’s and the other elves’ crafts. Hundreds of home-based and other small businesses participate in his annual consumer shows. “Ours are the only shows some of our vendors do all year,” Webb says. “Anywhere between 12,000 and 25,000 people a day go by their booths.  Artisans need shows like ours. We help them do what they love to do, and make a profit, too.”

Lisa Greenwood has been one of Webb’s vendors as have Tonia Winkler of freshly-baked biscotti fame, author Laura Bills, Doug Smith of the Last Frontier Trading Post, photographers, painters, and artisans of all kinds – from tiny, to medium, to relatively large small businesses.

The Holiday Food and Gift Festival is scheduled for Nov. 6-8; the Arts and Crafts Emporium, Nov. 21 and 22; and a new show this year, Christmas Village, is set for Dec. 12 and 13.  The new Denai’na Convention Center will be the site of all three. The new center is excellent for shows, Webb says, first of all because there is much more floor space, all laid out in 10 foot by 10 foot grids, the booth spaces are larger, the heating system works, and the drive-in delivery/unloading system is great, especially in the winter.

“Events Outside are closing, and we’re selling out our available space,” the businessman says.  “Vendors like our shows because admission is free.  Shows Outside charge five to ten dollars just to get in, and they are failing because of it.”

Webb expects 450 vendors at the Arts and Crafts Emporium, restricted to locally-made merchandise; and between 260 and 270 vendors at the Holiday Food and Gifts Festival, and the Christmas Village, open to imported as well as local gifts, crafts and household items.

The consumer shows are good business for Anchorage, as well.  Webb says he pays about $140,000 a year in rent to the municipality. “We provide about 300 jobs just in Anchorage – with no government assistance.”

Looking back over the year, Webb noted that there were as many tourists as ever this past summer, some 30,000 of them each weekend, but they were spending less.  Local people, however, were taking advantage of local activities, like the Anchorage Market and Festival (Saturday Market), held in the parking lot on the north side of Third Avenue.”

Webb owns and operates the popular outdoor summer market. By the end of the summer, Webb estimated that sales were about the same or a little less than last year.

“But we had to work harder to get there,” he adds.  “We really increased our promotion.”

“Alaska has the best economy in the United States right now,” Webb continues, “And we’re having a decent season.  When you’re weathering the worst depression since 1933, a decline in revenues of 12 percent or so seems manageable.”

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Greenwood reminds us that in addition to Webb’s shows, there are other gift and craft shows in the area, too.  Bad Girls of the North, owned by Vicki Potter and Carol Green, is one quite popular with vendors and shoppers alike.  Built on the premise that elegance is good business, the show is began at Josephine’s at the top of the Sheraton Hotel in Anchorage, with wine, hors d’oeuvres, and a fine collection of exceptional art and crafts items.

“It’s an invitation only show – for vendors, that is,” Greenwood explains, “consumers can all come.”

The dates for the upcoming Bad Girls shows are: Sept. 25 and 26, Westmark Hotel, in Fairbanks; Nov. 6 and 7; Millennium Hotel in Anchorage; and Nov. 13 and 14, Evangelo's Restaurant, on the Parks Highway, driving into Wasilla.  Shows are open on Fridays late afternoon/evening, and all day on Saturday.

“And don’t forget the Colony High School Bazaar,” Greenwood says, “People come all the way from Anchorage for that bazaar.”

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What other spin-off comes from the gift and craft shows?

“The holiday shows are pretty self-sufficient these days although we still help set up and, of course, attend the events,” says Darl Schaaff, owner and Chief Executive Officer of Arts Services North. “The holidays aren’t our biggest business season, but we do provide the holiday Christmas décor for the Captain Cook, the Sheraton, the Embassy Suites, and now the Dena’ina Convention Center. We also do the New Year’s Eve Opera Ball at the Captain Cook.  But the Fourth of July Parade and activities on the Park Strip are our biggest events.”

A party or special event produced by ASN most often involves elaborate set-design as well as menu choices, promotion, décor and budget-planning. 

Will the economy effect business this year?

 “I think people are shaving down expectations a bit.  Charity events are estimating lower revenues and businesses are down-scaling their holiday parties for appearances sake, Schaaff says.  “As a result, we are budgeting for decreased revenue, as well.”

 “But we’re different from a basic event planning company,” he continues.  “We help clients remold and redefine the direction of their fund-raising programs – based on changing economic conditions.”

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The business community is inter-related. What’s good for one, can be beneficial for others.  Businesswoman Jana Hayenga may not participate in the holiday shows themselves, but she recognizes that they are good business.

“Activities which bring people downtown benefit all merchants,” according to the owner of Cabin Fever gift shop, 650 West Fourth Avenue.  “When something happens like the G Street Merchants’ outdoor art shows in the summer or the holiday shows in the winter, my sales are up that day, too.”

So how has Hayenga’s year been? Statewide sales figures last spring reported anywhere from the status quo to 60 percent down, we were down 30 percent in May, but rose to 12 percent down in June, but that’s an improvement. 

“In thirty years in the retail business, I’ve never seen so much cash.  It used to be credit cards, but this year, people weren’t using credit, they were spending only what they had, analyzing their purchases a bit, and emotionally holding on to their pocketbooks,” Hayenga recalls.

“We had a very good July – sold a truckload of “I Can See Russia” t-shirts -- and the fall has been pretty steady.  We’ll see what Christmas brings.”

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