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Maine retailers hoping Christmas shopping stay strong despite COVID

Despite a global pandemic, things were merry and bright for Renys and L.L. Bean on Black Friday

TOPSHAM, Maine — For retailers, this Black Friday starts what are typically the most important four weeks of the year, the time when they can turn a profit if all goes well. 

Ask John Reny, president of the popular homegrown department store chain Renys. This marks the company’s 71st Christmas season. 

“We’re loaded for bear and ready for a successful Christmas season like we had last year,” Reny said from his office in Newcastle. 

But last year’s Christmas had no COVID, meaning no fear of infection or crowds, and no big unemployment spike hurting family incomes.

Now, with cases at record highs in Maine, Reny says one of the store’s primary goals is making the retail space safe, so customers will come.

“We have done a lot to stores to keep them extremely safe: clean, wear masks, all the things you’re supposed to do," he said.

“And that’s made a difference. We have so many comments from customers saying we really feel safe you’re doing the right stuff.”

On Black Friday there were plenty of shoppers in Reny’s Topsham store, and sizeable crowds, too, at what is arguably Maine’s other big local retail brand, L.L. Bean.

Like other, smaller retailers, Bean’s is hoping for a bright holiday shopping year. Two-thirds of the company’s business is online, so even when stores were closed in the spring because of COVID, the registers kept ringing.

Bean CEO Steve Smith told CNBC this week they believe those sales will keep coming because people have rediscovered the outdoors.

“And we saw it all spring and summer,” Smith told the network. “Bikes, boats, kayaks, hiking, and camping gear. Then we’ve seen the shift (since) early September- October we’ve had snowshoes up 350%, cross country skis, snow tubes, kids snow gear. All that is really blowing out.”

Smith said there has also been a big demand for ”comfort clothing” such as fleeces, robes, and slippers because people are spending to much more time at home.

Smith also said they believe that the demand will stay strong through the holiday season and into next year, which should also benefit other Freeport retailers as shoppers head to Bean’s big downtown store.

For all of them, however, there is still the unknown of COVID which, like winter itself, could again interfere with business as it did in April and May. 

For the moment, John Reny says, the holiday sales are looking bright. And like the season itself, the traditional start of the shopping surge is filled with hope.

“Outdoor, outerwear, boots. We could use a little snowstorm to spark that business," Reny said. “But we’re doing well already.”