Holiday shopping a competitive sport for local stores and teams

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Chris Bessey at Bessey Designs in Livermore Falls. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

LIVERMORE FALLS — Regardless of who wins and loses, sports are an indelible part of the joys and memories of the holiday season. 

Many no doubt remember being a little kid on Christmas morning and waking to find a couple of tickets to his or her favorite team poking out of the top of their stocking and a football under the tree, or slipping on their new hockey sweater before tearing open a box of new ice skates.

Well before the joy, however, comes the pain of buying the presents. The “Black Friday” rush brings hordes of shoppers, whether it’s online or in person, to their local sporting goods and department stores, searching for apparel emblazoned with a friend or loved one’s favorite team’s logo or a new fishing pole.

Small, locally-owned sporting goods businesses depend on the holiday shopping season as much as other stores and hope to draw shoppers with the promise that they can make the experience a less painful.

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Although competition from larger chain stores and cyber shops is increasing,  the “mom and pop” stores still attract shoppers because they can offer items and service those outlets do not.

“(Competing with) the internet is tough,” said Bump Heldman, whose family has owned and operated Gee and Bee Sports in Auburn since 1996. “It’s a constant battle, so we try to be better with service and making sure (customers) are getting everything they want and get it so it fits right, which some of those bigger stores and online companies can’t do.” 

Gee and Bee can even assist in figuring out how to wrap a hockey stick baseball bat, which anyone who has tried it knows isn’t easy.

“We can always try to help people get creative with the things that aren’t easy to wrap,” Heldman said. “We make sure we keep a lot of boxes around, just in case.”

Companies such as Gee and Bee and Bessey Designs in Livermore Falls specialize in local high school and college athletic apparel and accessories, offering teams and their fans customized gear to stand out on the court, field and ice or in the stands. 

Bessey Designs production manager Zach Keene said the Christmas rush for his shop starts before “Black Friday” because local schools have already started the winter sports season. Teams looking to gear up for practice and games and the fans who support their teams with shirts, hats or banners have already been ringing the cash register.

“The biggest rush leading into Christmas is on team gear and fan gear,” Keene said. “If we’re doing a logo for, say, Portland basketball or something, people might buy their parents shirts with the logo. Bleacher seats are pretty popular right now. Car decals are big, winter hats, fleece blankets… Duffel bags are pretty big because it’s basketball season.”

Bessey, which also offers custom graphic design, sells much of the apparel from its shop in downtown Livermore Falls but also takes orders online and connects with customers in other ways during the holiday season.

“It’s generally people from the area, more so than people from out of town (visiting the shop),” Keene said. “We hit a local craft fair that a lot of people go to to order stuff for Christmas.”

Shops catering to outdoorsmen must make a smooth transition from deer hunting season to the holidays. Paul Brook, owner of Woodman’s Sporting Good in Norway said the holiday rush comes a bit later.

“In 25 years here, my experience is (a post-Thanksgiving rush) doesn’t happen for the small Main street stores,” he said. “People will go to the brick-and-mortar stores first, and then go online. I get hit kind of at the last minute.”

With that in mind, Brook said he holds off on holding his traditional storewide sale until mid-December. That’s when hunters’ spouses and other family usually start coming in looking for help in picking out firearms, hunting supplies and other accessories or a gift certificate for their outdoorsman.

Brook said he extends the sale through the week after Christmas to help out “if Santa wasn’t good to the guys for Christmas.”

Bessey is offering discounts on team orders (plus free polos for the coaching staff) and other bulk orders of 15 pieces or more for the holidays. 

This is also a busy time of year for Maine’s professional sports teams, especially the Maine Red Claws, who are in the midst of their NBA G League season.

The Red Claws try to capitalize with in-season offerings to draw fans to the Portland Expo, senior director of community and public relations Evans Boston said.

“Every year, we do some sort of sale around ‘Black Friday’ and ‘Cyber Monday,'” he said. 

This year, the team is offering a “Buy One, Get One Free” ticket promotion for all seven remaining home games before the traditional, and usually sold-out, New Year’s Eve game.

“A lot of people buy tickets for Christmas presents and stocking stuffers, and that’s always reflected in our attendance after the holidays,” Boston said. 

Next week, Boston said, the Red Claws will unwrap a holiday ticket package that includes team merchandise. The team has also recently received its first shipment of team merchandise from the league’s new outfitter, Nike, that is for sale at its new offices at 554 Forest Avenue in Portland.

Brian Bessey spins a sweatshirt around to apply another application onto the apparel at Bessey Designs in Livermore Falls Wednesday afternoon. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Bessey Designs store manager Zack Keene with a display of local apparel at the Livermore Falls store. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

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