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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Debbie Malone unpacks merchandise to set up at the East Brainerd location of Elder's Ace Hardware on Wednesday. Elder's Ace Hardware stores are among the first to kick off the Christmas season with their open house on Nov. 3.

Tuesday was "a weird day" for Gay Crane, co-owner with husband Mike of Ringgold Feed & Seed Antiques.

"I'm pulling pumpkins down and putting Santas up," she said as she prepped for the High Cotton Christmas Market, a seasonal showcase of the North Georgia antiques store's vintage merchandise.

Outside, the temperature was a balmy 75. Inside, Crane was setting up snow scenes.

She'd already offered a sorry/not sorry on Facebook to any customers who might have wondered about the early timing of the Christmas Market, the last of four yearly special events that expand the store's selection to the parking lot.

"Yes, I know this event is the day after Halloween," she wrote of the Friday and Saturday sale, "but we all need to get a jump on Christmas shopping."

(To see a full list of open houses, click here

According to the National Retail Federation, about 40% of consumers begin their holiday shopping before Halloween, many in an effort to spread out their spending. While some may be looking for gifts, owners of several Chattanooga-area small businesses say shoppers are more likely looking for decor this early in the season.

As Crane reminded a reporter: "Hobby Lobby had all their [Christmas decor] out in the summer. They've already got it 40% off."

While Black Friday remains a bellwether for consumer spending habits, the retail significance of the day after Thanksgiving has been diluted in recent years. Some stores have begun opening on Thanksgiving Day or offering online promotions throughout November. Walmart was out of the gate on Oct. 25 this year with an online "Deal Drop" on electronics, video games and toys.

But what works for the major players doesn't necessarily translate to small businesses. Small retailers likely won't open on Thanksgiving or extend their shopping hours. They may have a Facebook presence, but maybe not a marketplace for online sales.

In the fierce competition for Christmas dollars, they look for other ways to stand out.

For retailers who specialize in gifts and decor, a Christmas open house is a common strategy for getting customers in the door. Shops are dressed for the occasion, and merchandise discounts, refreshments and giveaways are meant to put customers in a merry, spending mood.

The NRF is forecasting holiday retail sales in November and December to increase between 3.8% and 4.2% over 2018, with total spending expected to reach between $727.9 billion and $730.7 billion. An October survey found that consumers plan to spend $1,048 on average for holiday gifts and other items this year. Non-gift items such as food and decorations account for $227 of the projected amount.

And retailers are ready. Christmas trees sprouted weeks ago at Elder's Ace Hardware stores, slowly transforming into a wonderland of evergreens and ornaments in advance of today's franchise-wide open house.

"We start at the end of September," Joan Tidwell, a department head at the East Brainerd Road location, said of the decorating blitz.

If customers are wary of Christmas creep — the term used to describe the retail industry's tendency to start the holiday season ever earlier each year — they haven't complained to Tidwell. Instead, her East Brainerd regulars "are delighted," she said.

The East Brainerd store is known as a Premiere Christmas Place within the 21-store Elder's network, which stretches from Knoxville to Trenton, Georgia. The Highway 58 and Cleveland stores are also premiere locations, where in-store designers will offer Ladies Night decorating events later this month.

"Our store has a reputation [for a big Christmas display], so they can't wait," Tidwell said of her customers. "They're ready for summer to be over."

Blame part of the urgency on the calendar. Thanksgiving falls on the final Thursday of the month, meaning six fewer shopping days until Christmas than there were in 2018.

Donna Harmon, co-owner with Jann Wells of East Ridge antiques store SugarPlum, said their customers have come to expect an early kickoff to the season. SugarPlum's open house on Saturday even included what was likely the first Santa sighting of the season.

"It's kind of confusing," Harmon said of the mix of seasons that greeted customers in the days leading up to the open house. "It's Christmas as you come in the door but there's still a little bit of fall. Once the holiday open house is done, we do completely switch over to Christmas."

The SugarPlum party was the first among the shops in the East Ridge Antique District behind Cracker Barrel. Neighboring stores will follow suit on other weekends in November and December. Harmon said that's by design.

"We try to spread it out so that customers have something to keep coming back to every weekend," she said. "Everybody benefits that way. When people come back to another open house, they hit all the shops again."

Contact Lisa Denton at ldenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6281.

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