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BENNINGTON — Sidewalks, parking lots and — most important — stores were filled up just like old times on Black Friday, suggesting a busy and promising holiday weekend is underway for brick-and-mortar retail stores in Bennington County.

Despite the blustery and drizzly weather, in-person shoppers seemed undeterred in the Southshire and Northshire. Temperatures in the low 40s and an overcast sky that didn’t unleash significant precipitation might have actually been just right to bring patrons in the door.

“I just did a loop around town, and it’s busy. Feels like a foliage-type of weekend,” said Jaimie Mercer, director of retail sales and operations for Orvis. “Raining, that definitely helps. A little rain will drive them in, but not so much as to keep them in at home.”

The resurgence of foot traffic on streets that have been comparatively barren the last couple of years because of the pandemic is an encouraging development, especially for smaller businesses that don’t have much (or any) online presence to speak of.

COVID-19 led to record-setting online sales for both Black Friday and Cyber Monday in 2020, but there is evidence that things are trending back toward in-store shopping. Last year was the first time in history that Cyber Monday sales fell, according to Adobe Analytics.

Though online shoppers broke records for Thanksgiving Day itself, hitting $5.29 billion in sales nationwide, crowded streets and shops on the very next day appear to be a favorable sign.

Some businesses that seemed to be pandemic-proof didn’t really see much of a dip on in 2020 and 2021, and just continued their momentum into Friday this year. The owners of The Gift Garden at 431 Main St. in Bennington, Dwain and Beth Wilwol, have just recently expanded their business to the Putnam Block, and are still seeing fantastic feedback, with plenty of business in both locations.

“Even with COVID, where I thought we wouldn’t do so well because of the restrictions and everything, but we’ve just been crazy in here with flowers, plants, gifts,” said Beth Wilwol. “We’re very grateful and very fortunate that we’re doing well. I know there are many other businesses that aren’t.”

Another section of the retail industry that didn’t seem to take too much of a hit during the pandemic is outdoor gear and apparel. Both Orvis and The Mountain Goat in Manchester reported similar success, even through 2020 and 2021, in part thanks to offering a diverse selection.

“If you were apparel only, it was rough,” said Jim Lendway, store manager at the Orvis Outlet. “The dog department and the fishing department were instrumental in helping us weather that drop and fill that gap.”

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Lendway and Kasey Gidlow, manager at The Mountain Goat, also said having their store fully stocked for the holiday weekend was a major boon for business, considering recent supply chain challenges.

“We’re having a great day. … [This is] probably one of the first Thanksgiving or holiday weekends since the pandemic that we’ve been fully stocked,” said Gidlow. “It makes a huge difference. It makes it fun to be able to get the store ready to go. It was looking great this morning, and just really gives the customers a great opportunity to have choices.”

The family-owned Village Chocolate Shoppe on Main Street in Bennington was bustling on Friday afternoon, but owners Sherri and Denise Monte said they expect to draw even more customers over the weekend, as Small Business Saturday has historically been their busiest day.

The Village Chocolate Shoppe saw a significant boost to online sales during the pandemic that has persisted ever since, but the apparent shift back to in-person shopping is more than welcome for the Montes.

“Online business is great,” said Denise Monte. “But we have a lot of products we can’t ship. Things like hollow Santas and other things that we can’t routinely ship, so we don’t have them on our website. So it’s good in a way, but we still want people to be able to come in here and have something different.”

Even if you venture off Main Street in Bennington, some businesses just seem to have a following that will always be there to support them.

“There’s a strong ‘buy local’ movement, and I think people are definitely aware of that and eager to support that,” said Liz Ganger, owner of Hawkins House Craftsmarket. “We appreciate that. We’ve been in business since 1977, and so we’re a fixture. People know that we’re always here.”

One thing that the predominantly upbeat retailers seemed to agree upon was that staffing continues to be a challenge, especially as business picks back up. However, Allison Fabian, store manager at the Jockey Outlet in Manchester, had a positive outlook on the topic.

“It’s always a difficult thing, but that’s across the country,” she said. “I have a really good staff. And right now, I’d say [staffing] is actually getting better.”

Tory Rich can be reached at trich@manchesterjournal.com

Follow him on Twitter: @ToryRich6


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