By Doug Ireland
---- — There was a time when the holiday shopping season didn’t begin until the day after Thanksgiving.
Those days are long gone.
Southern New Hampshire merchants started decorating their stores and selling holiday merchandise in October. Christmas trees sellers are anxiously awaiting shipments of evergreens and holiday music is everywhere.
This year, a compressed holiday shopping season is drawing more shoppers earlier to area stores, local merchants said. Thanksgiving is on Nov. 28 — the latest day on which the holiday can fall, giving shoppers less time to make purchases between Black Friday and Christmas.
That means shoppers seem even more eager this year to buy holiday gifts, flooding stores beginning in October, merchants said.
The Home Depot is best known as a place to buy construction materials and appliances, but the Londonderry store has been drawing numerous customers seeking holiday items, assistant manager Steve Flagg said.
“People are definitely shopping earlier because they have one week less,” Flagg said yesterday.
The Home Depot started putting its holiday merchandise out during the first two weeks of October, he said. It didn’t matter that Halloween was still a few weeks away.
“They started buying it as soon as we put it out,” Flagg said. “It’s been selling every day since.”
At The Mall at Rockingham Park in Salem, the shorter season has more people out early, trying to beat the holiday rush, general manager Cindy Hall said.
“We have fewer shopping days, but the shoppers are realizing it,” Hall said.
Decorating at the mall for the holidays began the Sunday before Halloween, but that’s typical, Hall said.
Shoppers could buy Christmas lights at the same time they stocked up on Halloween candy.
“We had both happening at the same time,” Hall said of the two holidays.
There hasn’t been lull since, she said. Some stores will open four hours earlier on Thanksgiving — 8 p.m. instead of midnight, she said.
“Veterans Day was very busy and this past weekend was extremely busy,” Hall said.
Holiday merchandise isn’t the only thing arriving early — so is Santa.
The mall began offering photo opportunities with jolly old St. Nick on Thursday, well before the arrival of snow and Thanksgiving.
Santa will be available every day through the holiday season, Hall said.
The National Retail Federation is calling for a 3.9 percent increase in sales for November and December, a 0.4 percent over last year.
Retails chains such as J.C. Penney and Macy’s are opening their doors on Thanksgiving for the first time.
Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, has started some its major holiday sales a month earlier than usual. The sales were usually held Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
Nancy Kyle, president of the Retail Merchants of New Hampshire, said a compressed shopping season won’t bring as many shoppers to Granite State stores as much as lower gas prices will. Average gas prices have dropped more than 30 cents this fall.
“That means more money in people’s pockets,” she said. “It’s a psychological thing.”
Businesses that sell Christmas trees are getting their stands ready, but some say they don’t plan to sell them until at least Black Friday.
“The first two weekends in December are still the big days for us,” said Warren Stocker, owner of Highland Plantation Christmas tree farm in Newton. “I think most people are still buying their trees after Thanksgiving.”
Phil Ferdinando, owner of J&F Farms in Derry, said he’s pushing to get his Christmas trees a bit earlier this year.
He wants to keep up with the rush and customer demand to make sure the trees grown in Vermont are available on Black Friday .
“Everybody wants everything earlier,” he said.