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'Tis the season - to shop

Santa may already be working on his Christmas list and checking it twice, but what about this year's die-hard shoppers?

The start of the holiday shopping season - the day after Thanksgiving, which is now better known as Black Friday - is right around the corner and local retailers are gearing up.

Some may wonder if the slow economy will have an impact on what gift-givers will be putting under the tree this year.

"It's tough to know," said Melissa Folsom, owner of From the Heart in downtown Alexandria. "Some people may be watching the dollar amount a little closer this year. But it always seems to be a busy, hectic weekend."

Marlene Bettin, owner of Sweet Seasons in downtown Alexandria, said she can't compete with the big-box stores and that's OK.

"We are more focused on how we are different [than the big-box stores] and that we have different items," said Bettin. "Our strategy is that people can go out and buy their items at 5 a.m. and then they can regroup, come downtown and shop in a more relaxed atmosphere."

Bettin said when shoppers head to the downtown area, they shouldn't feel rushed; they should stroll leisurely and enjoy the holiday shopping season.

In the smaller retail shops, like those found downtown, she added that the staff is there to serve the customers - to wait on them, to take the time to help them find the perfect gift and also, most of the stores offer free gift wrapping.

Despite the frenzied feeling of Black Friday, Bettin believes that customers are "still looking for that warm fuzzy."

"Hopefully, we can give them that," she said.

Joe Nemo, owner of Magpie, believes the same thing about competing with the big-box stores.

"We are a feel-good store and different than the box stores," said Nemo.

Although the downtown shops open a little earlier on Black Friday, the hours are not that much different than any other day, added Nemo.

"But we have some good sales that we normally don't have," he said.

Folsom said the weekend after Thanksgiving is always a busy time for shoppers, but that many of her customers are focusing on seasonal decorating supplies for their homes and not necessarily buying gifts.

For her store, and many others in downtown Alexandria, the gift-buying season starts the following weekend - December 4-6. This is when many of the downtown merchants will host "A Hometown Christmas Experience."

Marsha Franzen, sales manager at Cullen's Home Center in Alexandria, believes that this year may bring more family gifts - gifts that the whole family can enjoy - instead of smaller individual presents.

Because of the changes being made to TV programming with the conversion boxes - it's going digital early next year - Franzen said a popular family gift has been a new television.

Even though the economy may be down, she added that the electronics industry is very solid. There has been little change, she added.

Cullen's will be opening earlier than normal on Black Friday and there will be larger discounts for those who shop early.

"We have a 'beat the clock' sale from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m.," noted Franzen, adding, "The earlier you shop, the more you save."