Store Manager Jamie Forsman (left) and staff member Shaye Labonte stock items at Trader Joe's Outpost in Presque Isle on Dec. 8, 2022. Credit: Paula Brewer / The Star-Herald

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Aroostook County holiday shoppers are saying goodbye to the single-day Black Friday frenzy, backing off internet orders and buying local.

Businesses from Houlton to the St. John Valley have reported brisk sales this season, with cold-weather wear, decor and jewelry among the top sellers.  

Inflation and hikes in heating fuel and electricity have strapped consumers around the state. But in The County, some retailers say holiday sales are outperforming last year’s and have put them back to pre-pandemic levels.

Not only are people buying more gifts locally, but they are more determined than ever to celebrate, no matter what the cost of living is.

“As far as shopping in stores, I think the pandemic really helped show the value to Maine people that they support their local businesses,” said Curtis Picard, president and CEO of the Retail Association of Maine in Augusta. “I think people have been more conscious of that.”

And there’s another interesting reversal. Millennials — those born in the 1980s and 1990s — generally didn’t like shopping in stores, he said. But Generation Z, which followed, seems to be trending back toward in-store experiences.

The picture reflects the National Retail Federation’s Nov. 3 forecast that while online sales would continue, more shoppers would return to in-person shopping. The federation projected holiday sales would grow from 6 to 8 percent over 2021 despite inflation.

Maine usually follows the national track, Picard said. Retail association members reported a solid back-to-school season, and since Thanksgiving sales are headed upward in what feels like the first normal holiday shopping season since 2019.

“I know a lot of people are not shopping online this year. They’re shopping local, so when they see it, they buy it right off,” said Jamie Forsman, manager of Trader Joe’s Outpost in Presque Isle.

Many of the store’s customers aren’t waiting for big sales or deals, Forsman said. The Black Friday push is spread over the entire season, which has meant a steady stream of shoppers since before Thanksgiving.

All types of outerwear — jackets, hats, gloves and boots —are popular gifts. The store also sells other footwear, clothing and snowshoes and outdoors items.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Employee Shaye Labonte and store manager Jamie Forsman work on a display of hats and gloves at Trader Joe’s Outpost in Presque Isle on Dec. 8. (Paula Brewer | The Star-Herald)

People new to the area contribute greatly to sales because they come unprepared for winter and have been buying a lot of cold-weather clothing, Forsman said.

Jewelry has gained in popularity since the pandemic, according to Sam Corey at Robert’s Jewelry in Madawaska.

The jewelry business experienced some unique growth during COVID-19 restrictions, Corey said. People couldn’t gather to celebrate with loved ones in traditional ways, so many chose jewelry as a way to express their love.

Sales of lab-created diamonds have increased this holiday season.

“For a lot of folks, especially in our area, you get a lot of bang for your buck — big, big sparkle but at a fraction of the cost of the diamonds that are mined traditionally,” Corey said.

More people are spending their money locally, he said. Sales are greater than last year and have been largely unaffected by inflationary pressures.

Shoppers haven’t let higher prices elsewhere affect their holiday spending at all as far as she has seen, said Patty Corriveau, owner of Thistle Stop Design, a florist and antique restoration shop in Caribou.  

“Whether it’s gas or groceries, it didn’t stop us from doing Thanksgiving, and it won’t stop us at Christmas,” Corriveau said. “It’s just something that’s so important, to be together with family, especially having gone through the pandemic.”

Corriveau creates arrangements with old barrels and logs filled with pine, fir, juniper, red dogwood and other branches. Whether for inside or outside, those are especially popular with customers right now, she said.

Sales at her shop were brisk even through the pandemic, because people were unable to gather physically and sent flowers and gifts to each other. Now, she is busier than ever, she said.

In Houlton, sales at Country North Gifts are on par with pre-COVID-19 levels, said Country North Gifts staff member Shannon Cibic.  

Corkcicles insulated tumblers and coffee mugs, which come in a variety of forms and colors, have been very popular at the store, Cibic said.

“I would say we’re back to normal,” she said. “There have been lots of people out [shopping].”

At Fort Kent’s Bogan Books, business seems a bit ahead of last year, owner Heidi Carter said. Though people are spending less, there are more customers overall, including some new faces.

“People are, I think, a little bit more careful in how they’re spending their money,” she said. “We do sell a lot of gift certificates, but they’re a little bit lower in value this year.”

Books by Maine authors do well throughout the year, but are especially sought during the holiday season. Right now Stephen King’s new book “Fairy Tale” is popular. Customers are also interested in Celeste Ng’s “Our Missing Hearts,” Michele Obama’s “The Light We Carry” and “Friends, Lovers and the Big Terrible Thing” by Matthew Perry.