MERCED -- It's no surprise that local businesses are seeing an uptick in shoppers as Christmas approaches, but retailers are reporting increased overall consumer activity this season compared to a year ago.
Store owners and managers think a slightly improved economy and modest increases in consumer confidence are helping.
Kathy Andrade, general manager of the Merced Mall, said she's seen a sales increase of about 2 percent over last year.
"We're looking good," she said. "We're seeing a lot more foot traffic on weekends."
Though the Merced Mall wasn't hit as hard as other larger malls during the recession, Andrade said, sales have managed to increase over the past two years. She hopes the economy will pick up even more and continue that trend.
"I have a good feeling that we're starting to turn that corner," she said.
Downtown Merced businesses have noticed a similar bump in sales this year.
Foot traffic in downtown increases the week before Thanksgiving and continues until Christmas, according to store owners.
As with other businesses, that jump in activity is key for Helen & Louise, a shop on the corner of Canal and 18th streets that specializes in women's apparel and accessories. The store has been in downtown Merced since 1944.
Owner Jackie Goodwin said that as other nearby stores do better, it helps make downtown Merced a shopping destination that offers personalized service and items that can't be found at retail chains.
The store is one of many that push for customers to shop at small, local businesses.
"We're doing better than last year," she said. "We're doing well. We're very fortunate -- we have a very loyal clientele."
Denim, sweaters and jackets are among the store's top gift items this year, Goodwin noted.
Business also is better next door at The Armory, a shop that specializes in men's apparel.
Owner Ashley Leffard said the store is averaging about 65 new customers a month this quarter, which is up from about 50 new customers a month. The store opened in October 2011.
The store is continually attracting more attention as shoppers become aware of it, Leffard said.
Big-box retailers also report an above-average year.
Target is staffed with more seasonal workers this year compared to the last few years, said store Manager Sanjeet Bhanota. He estimated that holiday staffing was increased by about 20 percent to 25 percent.
"It always picks up more as you get closer to the holiday," he said. "We do better each and every year."
Bhanota said electronics, toys, housewares and small appliances are some of the more active departments this time of year as customers are looking for gifts that will entertain friends and family members.
Bhanota said he's confident that the economy is doing better in most places, including Merced County.
Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or email@example.com.