COVER

Cashing in on Christmas

MARK CLARK December 9 1985
COVER

Cashing in on Christmas

MARK CLARK December 9 1985

Cashing in on Christmas

COVER

In Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, entrepreneur Steven Balyi and the 21 employees of his company, Inner Circle Provender Ltd., were busy last week making fruitcake—5,000 lb. of it worth $50,000. One hundred kilometres to the south, on the rocky slopes of Lunenburg County on the Atlantic coast, Christmas-tree grower Matthew Wright and a score of helpers were working 12hour days cutting and baling thousands of balsam fir trees for shipment as far south as the Caribbean. And at the other end of the country, in Whitehorse in the Yukon, potter Phyllis Fiendell was preparing mulled cranberry wine for 80 customers and friends invited to an open-house sale in her home. Balyi, Wright and Fiendell have one thing in common: each has figured out how to make a living from the annual Christmas spending splurge. Said Fiendell, who sold $2,200 worth of pottery at an open house in the midst of her peak season last year: “Come January I sit back and take a breather, but a good half of my business is Christmas.”

Spirit: This year Canadian shoppers will spend an estimated $20 billion during the 10 weeks leading up to the holidays. And the Christmas entrepreneurs—from small specialty stores selling nothing but tree decorations to large department stores with their costly Santa Claus displays —have learned how to package the annual Christmas spirit in paper and bows. Thousands of retailers, from department store managers to magazine subscription salesmen, rely on November and December sales to push sluggish businesses into the black. “Close to 30 per cent of all sales are attributable to Christmas,” said John Gillespie, president of the 10,000-member Retail Merchants Association of Canada (Ont.) Inc. “It really is the key to retailing right across Canada.”

For businesses that depend heavily on gift-giving, such as toy makers and jewelry stores, preparation for the

Christmas bulge is critical. Last month toy makers and sellers gathered in Toronto for the first of a series of trade fairs aimed at Christmas, 1986. “The products on the shelves now were introduced a year ago,” says Henry Wittenberg, president of the Canadian Toy Manufacturers’ Association. “Our members are already introducing products for Christmas, 1986.”

Bursting: For some businesses the holiday season is the only reason for their existence. Karl Meier, general manager of Noma Inc. of Toronto, says that his 300 employees produce more than half of the Christmas light strings that brighten Canadian trees and homes at a modern suburban Toronto plant. But year-round production of $20 million worth of items keyed to lighting up a single season brings with it certain logistical problems. From January to August the 100,000-squarefoot warehouse at Noma’s plant gradually fills to the bursting point with the company’s output of Christmas lights. Relief from the storage nightmare arrives when shipments to customers begin in late August and continue until November. “Believe me,” said Meier, “those trailer-trucks are a welcome sight.”

But no industry is more symbolic of the holiday surge in consumer demand than the tree growers. In late November empty lots across the country suddenly sprout stands of fragrant cut pine, balsam and spruce. For tree cultivator Wright and others like him, the entire year’s business is conducted in roughly one month. “The byword in the industry is fresh,” said Wright. “You have to wrap up a year’s work in three or four weeks.” He and his five full-time employees spend the spring, summer and fall tramping through the stands of young fir, fertilizing and shaping trees and spraying herbicides to kill weeds and competing hardwoods. As the days shorten, Wright says that he begins to feel a sort of “nervous tension” in anticipation of the long work days during the month

of November and the first days of December.

In all, Nova Scotia growers this season will export at least 1.6 million trees worth $25 million, more than any other province. Some of the trees will go to other provinces, but most of them will end up in New England. This season Wright will pull in more than $200,000 selling 15,000 10-year-old trees from his own woodlots and about $10,000 more from woodlot owners who sell trees as a sideline. In cities such as Boston and New York, the same trees will sell for as much as $55. Wright, who is president of the Lunenburg County Christmas Tree Producers Association, estimated that at least 2,500 small woodlot owners sell trees as a sideline in the county, while thousands more local people pick up extra cash cutting and loading during the brief November harvest. “I don’t know what Christmas would be in this county without the tree industry,” said Wright. “A lot of people here depend on it for their Christmas spending money.”

Cachet: For an estimated 10,000 Canadian artisans and craftspeople Christmas sales are literally a way of life. Many, like Whitehorse’s Fiendell,

derive one-half or more of their income from Christmas sales. Indeed, the hundreds of pre-Christmas craft fairs that first appeared in church halls and hockey rinks during the 1970s have become a favored shopping place for many Canadians searching for special gifts with a “handmade” cachet. Some shows, such as the 18day Salon des métiers d’arts, which opens this week at the Place Bonaventure in downtown Montreal, have become formidable retailing events. Last year’s show generated more than $5 million in sales—about 15 per cent of all craft sales for the year in the Montreal area.

This year 310 artists and craftspeople—from potters and glass-blowers to stainedglass makers and clothing designers —will each pay $1,200 for an 80square-foot space to set up a booth at the salon. Said Jean-Guy Monette, chief organizer for the salon: “If these shows were not there, many of these

people could not make a living.”

Steven Balyi perfected his Christmastime enterprise at a similar craft fair in Nova Scotia. Formerly an instructor at the University of Toronto’s Erindale College, Balyi was unem-

ployed when he moved to Wolfville, N.S., in 1980 with his partner, Marguerite Cassin, when she became an assistant professor of business at Acadia University. At the urging of friends, Balyi decided to try selling fruitcakes at local fairs. His main asset was a

recipe that had been handed down to him a decade earlier by Cassin’s 85year-old grandmother, Agnes Kitt, of Dauphin, Man. Balyi turned the venerable rum-soaked fruitcake into the primary cornerstone of a $100,000-ayear business.

Gifts: In 1982, equipped with a cutting board, a roll of plastic wrap and “every pot and pan in the house,” Balyi used $2,000 worth of ingredients to make $5,000 worth of fruitcake—and sold out in a matter of days. The next year sales were $20,000. When he discovered that a growing number of customers were buying dozens of the cakes and regularly giving them out as business gifts, he said, “We knew we were no longer making fruitcakes—we were making gifts.”

This year Balyi introduced a tollfree telephone line, allowing long-distance customers to place orders free of charge. He says he plans to take orders until Christmas for delivery by New Year’s and hopes to have sales of $100,000 to $120,000. Inner Circle Provender Ltd. (ICP), the company he and Cassin set up in 1983, has moved to a small industrial mall on the outskirts of Kentville, N.S. As well as the fruitcakes—which weigh from three-quarters of a pound to three pounds in hand-made wooden boxes and cost between $11 and $31—Balyi now offers a range of traditional Christmas fare, including plum pudding, mincemeat, hard sauce and shortbreads. The average order is $120, but business customers, who account for at least half of the total sales, have taken as many as 850 of the boxed cakes, some with their own company’s logo branded on the box lid beside ICP’S.

Confident: Already, one large Ontario corporation is negotiating an advance order for 14,000 fruitcakes for 1986, when it will celebrate its 75th anniversary. Balyi, 36, and Cassin, 39, are confident that they can extend their experience with Christmas sales into other areas. Said Cassin: “We are selling to a market we know and live in—kids of the 1960s with fancy educations, fancy jobs and fancy salaries.” As for motivation, Cassin leaves no doubt: “I want to be rich.” Indeed, whenever Canadians give, the Christmas entrepreneur gets a little bit richer.

MARK CLARK

CHRIS WOOD