Santa’s always on time. Stereo equipment manufacturers, not so much. “It’s a little desktop radio with a CD player in it," says Chris Sweet, manager of Peak Audio on Agricola Street in Halifax. “It was supposed to be a great thing for Christmas. But now it’s delayed and the company says it won’t be here until late December.
“So much for that."The missing radio is a mere blip on the Peak Audio Christmas radar. Typically, Sweet, who does all the buying for the home entertainment store, plus on-floor selling, going to customers’ homes to set up systems and “humping the stock into the basement," does short-term ordering. The time lag between calling for and receiving goods is between three and nine days. And that’s no different in December. He might order more of a particular item, sure, like these sweet Pro-Ject Turntables made in the Czech Republic by the largest turntable manufacturer in the world that come in hot colours like silver, red, yellow, blue and champagne and run a nifty $350 (“the kids like them"). But that’s the extent of his pre-Christmas ordering frenzy.
For George Zakher the process isn’t so quick.Zakher buys for outdoor gear store The Adventure Outfitters (or, if you’re in the know, TAO), located on Windmill Road in Dartmouth. He spends at least one month’s worth of time every year going to trade shows in Canada, the US and Europe. It doesn’t end there. “You’re always having a product in your mind," Zakher says, “whether you see it in a magazine or you’re out tenting and you think, ‘Aw, I wish I had ABC’."
Zakher buys a full year in advance. You read right. The Christmas ornaments—Santa posed as the outdoorsy type, cross-country skiing and the like—that are flying off TAO’s shelves at $9 to $15 a pop were purchased last January. Ditto for the indestructible, water-resistant camping guitar and the waterproof food storage pinatas for camping that everyone’s talking about.
Zakher’s been lucky with those items, but he says it’s nearly impossible to know—a full year in advance—what will sell. The good news is “a sleeping bag is a sleeping bag is a sleeping bag." And when it comes to clothing, “You have your basic colours, your navys and things like that. Those are always going to be there for 65 to 70 percent of the population. But then there are the people who want what’s in at that time."
Ah yes. But what’s in for the rest of the country might not be what’s in for Haligonians. “You can have colours flying off Quebec shelves, and nobody will touch them," says Zakher. “We went to a show a few years ago and the retailers were saying they couldn’t keep these colour on the shelves. We brought them here and thank god some of the staff liked them. Because no one else bought them."
Occasionally, though, selling to trend-dodging Nova Scotians pays off.
“Everyone in the industry has been telling us: do not buy traditional snowshoes anymore. I said no, this is Nova Scotia, people still want some traditional stuff," Zakher says. “And we are one of the only stores selling traditional snowshoes. We insisted and it worked."
Alan Hatton knows what it’s like to deal with fashion-belated Haligonians. He does all the buying for The Cookhouse, a kitchenware store with locations in Bedford’s Sunnyside Mall and on Quinpool Road. In a previous life, Hatton was a buyer with Eaton’s for 25 years. He’s used to it taking six months or longer for locals to catch on to big trends.
“I’ll get something that’s blow-out and now," he says, “and I bring it in and it sits there until I get sick and tired of it. And then people come in and say, ‘do you have...’" Example? “My whole tabletop story for two years ago was very popular this past summer. It was lime green and turquoise—those sorts of colours. The first year they did absolutely nothing. Then finally they caught on."
Right now, Hatton is ordering linen collections for summer, which sounds a little like shopping for a bikini while you’re wearing a parka: “I’m versed in pinks and turquoises and browns right now." He buys for Christmas in the autumn; mostly at Toronto’s Canadian Gift and Tablewares Show in August and the Maritime Gift show, which takes place in January and September every year. Hatton also makes his rounds to international shows.
The seasoned buyer says kitchenware is becoming increasingly stylish—and people are more finicky about what they want. “Five years ago, 10 years ago," Hatton says, “it was like the hardware department—very utilitarian and very boring and nothing ever changed. Now we’re getting more colour, more innovation. There really is a colour palette. The trick is to be aware of what’s out there and what’s developing. It’s the ‘What’s Christina Aguilera wearing this month?’ thing. That gives you a good feel for what’s happening. Hilary Duff and her pink—pink is the new black for next year."
This year’s hot item (well, OK, last year’s, but it’s just picking up here) is silicone. “The silpat baking sheets ($29.99) were very popular last Christmas and they continued to be all year," Hatton says. This season it’s silicone spatulas, silicone measuring cups, silicone muffin liners in colours like green, yellow, blue and red. “Again, it’s about fashion," Hatton says, “but it’s also a very durable item, it’s very serviceable—easy to clean up and easy to store and it doesn’t rust."
If anyone should benefit from the theory that Haligonians are one step behind the fashion times, it’s Merle Bryant, owner of The Clothes Horse on Argyle Street. Bryant’s focus is high-quality women’s clothing; recycled, but not used. “I try not to get into defining it too much," she says. “‘Used.’ I don’t like that connotation. Some of the things I get are end-of-line. If you’re promoting a sweater line, you have to have a lot of clothes to show, for the wholesale side of things. Sometimes models wear them. You can’t sell those. You can’t. But then once that season’s over, you can get them.
“I call them recycled and that’s exactly what they are. They had a purpose, the purpose might not have been fulfilled, and therefore they’re still out there."
Bryant has years of experience as a buyer (and a lot of contacts for her stock, though she says point blank “I don’t divulge my sources"). She used to own a new clothing store and has worked as a buyer for other companies.
She only works a couple of days per week at The Clothes Horse; the rest of her time is spent procuring stock. That’s year round. The Christmas season doesn’t change her schedule. While technically Bryant is a season late when it comes to buying since she’s getting collection leftovers, in a way she’s working a half year in advance. “In the fall I get all kinds of wonderful stuff for summer," she says. “I get, sometimes, my best pieces off-season. You could come in and say, oh, she’s got linen shirts and it’s November. But if you got them in July you might have paid $60 or $100."
So the fashion tardiness of most Haligonians should benefit Bryant’s particular buying habits, right? Technically yes. Problem is, she doesn’t believe Halifax is behind the times.
“I totally think that we’ve very creative," Bryant says. “I think that women here are—how do I put this?—they never cease to surprise me in their knowledge. So I try to never underestimate their ability to know good things. They may see it, but they’re never totally dictated by fashion. They like to add their own quirks. We’re not backwards, we’re individual."