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It takes a village to raise sales

Local business owners craft holiday schemes to attract shoppers
by: DENISE FARWELL, Jeremiah Guske and his marionette, Scarlett Torrance, entertain shoppers and drivers at the corner of Northwest 23rd Avenue and Glisan Street on Sunday. They were there to attract shoppers to Holiday Village, which offered free gift wrapping and umbrellas, and photos with Santa Claus.

This year, Kim Lane started thinking about Christmas in September. In her line of work, that's almost too late.

Lane owns Bee and Thistle clothing boutique in Northwest Portland and Sole shoe store in the Pearl District. For Lane and other small-business owners, the holiday shopping season can determine whether 2006 was a profitable year - and they are working up holiday specials in neighborhood business districts throughout the city.

'Every year we have to push a little harder to make our goals,' she said. 'So we came up with this European-style shopping experience for the holidays.'

Lane and Deborah Haynes, owner of Bliss Beauty Bar on Northwest 23rd Avenue, have been scrambling since September to set up a holiday marketing blitz for their Nob Hill business district.

Their first-ever Holiday Village is one of a handful of efforts by Portland neighborhood business districts to attract business during a time of year when nationally owned stores are bombarding shoppers with deals.

'We got together as a business association because we wanted to offer something to our customers in the neighborhood and bring customers in from other neighborhoods,' Lane said.

Lane and Haynes convinced the owner of an empty store at Northwest 23rd Avenue and Glisan Street to lend them space to house a Holiday Village. Open on the weekends leading up to Christmas, it offers free gift-wrapping from Big Brothers Big Sisters, loaner umbrellas, pets from Oregon Humane Society and, of course, Santa Claus.

Parking sweetens the deal

But the big draw, Lane said, is ample free parking.

Nob Hill is notorious for its challenging parking conditions, so she got American Express to sponsor valet parking in one lot and free parking in two other lots during the first three Saturdays of December.

Lane says the free parking coupled with the lure of national chain stores, such as Williams-Sonoma Home and Restoration Hardware, are benefiting the locally owned businesses in Nob Hill this holiday season.

According to American Research Group Inc., the average American will spend approximately $900 on family and friends this holiday season. The bulk of the money will go to big chain stores such as Wal-Mart and Target.

Patrick Donaldson, president of the Alliance of Portland Neighborhood Business Associations, thinks local businesses can do a better job of capitalizing on the annual holiday spending spree.

'They can do it bigger,' Donaldson said. 'These businesses need to capitalize on the advantage they have over large, national stores.'

That advantage, Donaldson said, is uniqueness. Small, local stores often carry local items, or items that are not mass-produced. Donaldson says a shopper has a much better chance of finding a gift that is appropriate for the recipient.

'National chains force local retailers to be wiser and more targeted in their focus,' he said.

Southwest Portland's Hillsdale business district, for example, has found success by including the neighborhood in its holiday shopping drive. For the past eight years, businesses have organized a charity drive and chili feed for neighborhood schools. Bands and choirs from elementary, middle and high schools perform for shoppers and parents.

Austerity is in fashion

The Alberta Arts District in Northeast Portland is still struggling to find a way to bring shoppers to the neighborhood for the holidays.

For the third consecutive year businesses participated in Tannenbaum Madness, for which businesses and artists create and decorate their own Christmas trees. This year, 35 businesses are taking part.

'Each business creates something new and interesting, with an emphasis on what they sell,' said Allan Oliver, owner of Onda Arte Latina.

Oliver admits that the effort hasn't resulted in measurably increased business, but he says Alberta shoppers aren't the type to go overboard at the holidays.

'Our customers aren't necessarily the type of people who spend a lot of money at the holidays,' he said.

The biggest challenges to getting more holiday shoppers, according to Oliver, are funding and manpower. The people who sit on the neighborhood business district boards are volunteers who spend more than 40 hours a week running their own businesses.

Next year, Donaldson plans to have the Alliance of Portland Neighborhood Business Associations give business owners some assistance in planning for the holiday shopping season. He intends to gather business association leaders to brainstorm ways they can entice shoppers to their neighborhoods, using limited budgets.

'You've heard of Christmas in July?' he said. 'That's when we're going to start thinking about planning for the holidays next year.'