Friday, July 19, 2024

Independent businesses such as the Harvard Book Store were the intended beneficiaries of “Plaid Friday,” a nationwide effort to counteract mall-based Black Friday sales. (Photo: Wertheim)

Cambridge Day is part of a project called Voices of MainStreet — a weekly, nationwide Q&A in which editors at the money and lifestyle site ask questions and bloggers answer them. This is the third entry, in which I discuss how Cambridge handles its holiday decorations.

Last year only my niece got gifts. This year I have the luxury of spending again, and I have – buying gifts for everyone in my immediate family and even, while visiting with everyone over Thanksgiving, springing for a meal. (I know that doesn’t sound like much, but we didn’t eat out much.)

But with all that gift buying out of the way already, the family skipped Black Friday. The only sign it had come and gone was the mass of coupon supplements that arrived with the newspaper, which took some work to separate but wound up stacking significantly higher than the stuff we actually read over lunch. Good for the newspaper! Someone didn’t get laid off that day.

But while I was lazing around in California, that biggest shopping day of the year still went on back in Cambridge. This year, American Express and some others promoted a “Small-Business Saturday” for the first time, but the coalition of local businesses called Cambridge Local First instead went with “Plaid Friday” — it keeps the focus on Friday but tries to take it off the malls. Local business leaders heard about the national movement only a couple of weeks ago.

“Response was very good despite a late start,” said Frank Kramer, for years the proprietor of the Harvard Book Store and now head of Cambridge Local First. “A few stores were really able to pick it up and promote it, like Cambridge Naturals, and did see a response.”

He didn’t have figures, but Black Friday had never changed things dramatically for the owners and managers of most nonchain stores in Cambridge. As always, the closer to Christmas, the better their sales figures.

None of my holiday purchases came from the mall. (Apple Store be damned!) As usual my time was split between Harvard and Porter squares, in the bookshops, the Newbury Comics music and DVD sections, at unique places such as Joie de Vivre and, reluctantly, online.

I’m an outlier. The mall had its usual throngs, although I know some CambridgeSide Galleria stores always benefit more than others. The Cambridge Chronicle confirmed that phenomenon this year, as well as spotting a new one: the influx of cash by travelers from other countries, where the currency is stronger. In Cambridge, it was the Irish making up for the area unemployed.

Unfortunately, the increase in spending touted from a National Retail Federation survey doesn’t look quite as good when accounting for inflation. It didn’t even look that great to start. It may be true the average shopper spent $365.34, better than the $343.31 a year ago, but plug that amount into a Fed consumer price index calculator and you’ll find that the $343.31 of a year ago is the $351.63 of today. So the average shopper didn’t spend $22.03 more than a year ago, but $8.32. The Federation also says more Black Friday shoppers this year were buying for themselves – suggesting the bargains meant staples for the buyer, not luxury for their loved ones.