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Our Views: Spread the cheer this holiday
This shopping season, lets help both big and small stores, plus area charities
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson.

This year’s Christmas season began last week with a more recent tradition that goes beyond tree lightings and turkey leftovers.

In the days before Thanksgiving, many folks were camped out in line outside of several major retail stores in anticipation of the bargains that awaited inside for the Black Friday post-Thanksgiving sales.

Those sales keep getting earlier, too. Stores used to open at dawn Friday; then the door busting deals crept back to midnight. Now some fling open the doors for holiday shopping Thursday evening before the gravy has cooled and the pumpkin pie has been cut.

Many shake their heads at such consumer excess, particularly during a holiday meant to be set aside for giving thanks and cherishing life’s blessings more important than big-screen TVs and hand-held computers. And we owe a bit of thanks, and perhaps pity, for workers who had to cut their own holidays short to staff the stores for the early-bird sales.

But who are we to judge how someone spends their holiday? If camping out to save a little money is what makes some people happy, they’re welcome to it. And if the stores feel there is a market for the earlier sales hours, they get to make that call.

And in a larger sense, it may indicate good things for the spending season ahead and the U.S. economy.

The National Retail Federation forecasts holiday sales to rise 4.1 percent to $586.1 billion this year, a bigger increase than usual over the last 10 years. Shoppers are expected to spend an average $749.51 in November and December, with many shelling out much more in an era when high-tech devices have replaced socks and scarves on most wish lists.

Retailers certainly count on such sales, which account for some 40 percent of their earnings for the year. And much of what goes under the tree is expected to be bought online, which accounted for 22 percent of holiday purchases last year and is expected to increase.

While many Georgians remain without work and are struggling to get by, increased holiday spending is a sure sign the economy may be on the rebound.

One sign of this may be that the local unemployment rate continues to fall, down to 6.6 percent in metro Gainesville (which includes all of Hall County) in October, a big drop from 7.9 percent a year ago. That’s close to the lowest rate in Georgia (metro Athens at 6.2 percent) and well below the state’s overall jobless rate of 8.7 percent and the national rate of 7.9 percent.

A strong holiday sales season for local retailers will keep that number headed in the right direction, keeping more jobs available while boosting government coffers with additional sales tax revenue.

As we open our wallets and pull out the plastic this season to share what we’ve worked hard to earn with our gifts, let’s do our best to spread the wealth a bit in other ways.

One way is to shop for holiday goodies at several different places and not all at one store. Give local retailers and small businesses a chance to reap the benefits of increased consumer confidence this holiday. Those small shops need support, too, not just at the end of the year but all year long. Giving them their fair share will keep them thriving and keep our neighbors working.

Online shopping is convenient and certainly desirable for some, but try to take time to visit local stores as well. Shopping on the Web doesn’t provide as many jobs as the brick-and-mortar retailers at the local mall or town square. Supporting them in person keeps our job picture brighter.

And let’s all be sure to set aside something for charities that rely on holiday giving to provide for community needs. The United Way of Hall County is in the midst of its annual drive, with donations supporting a number of key agencies that do important work.

Also remember charitable efforts tied to the holiday season: The Salvation Army kettles and their bell-ringing volunteers; Toys for Tots, led by the U.S. Marine Corps; and the Gainesville Jaycees’ annual Empty Stocking Fund.

All of these organizations work to provide holiday cheer and more to those in need, many of whom haven’t shared in the improving economy like many of the rest of us.

A strong holiday season for retailers and charities would go far to boosting the nation’s spirits heading into 2013. Already, a dark cloud looms in the new year, as the “fiscal cliff” of expiring tax cuts could hit right as the Christmas bills arrive in January.

If the White House and leaders in Congress want to keep the season bright for the U.S. economy, they need to double their efforts to solve this potential crisis before it puts a crimp in the flow of holiday cash. That ominous setback is the last thing we need at a time when fortunes are improving for many and the holidays offer a respite from four years of difficulties.

In the meantime, we can all do our part by sharing what we spend to help our communities and our neighbors in need and make the season bright for all.

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