Enterprise graphic/Hayden Cox

VALE – Consumers in Malheur County are generally confident about the economy and many plan to spend as much if not more on holiday gifts this year, according to interviews and a survey conducted by the Malheur Enterprise.

Shoppers often consider the day after Thanksgiving to be the starting gun for holiday shopping, and local merchants appear ready.

“People are spending. They are out buying and they are out shopping,” said John Kirby, owner of Kinney Bros. & Keele True Value Hardware in Ontario.

John Breidenbach, CEO of the Ontario Area Chamber of Commerce, said that overall, the local economy seems to be vibrant, which could pay dividends for local merchants.

“It seems to be holding its own,” Breidenbach said. “Onion prices aren’t where we’d like them, but overall construction is up.”

As for expectations for sales this year, Breidenbach said that based on the retailers that he has spoken to, Christmas shopping has started earlier this year.

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Officials at banks in Malheur County declined to assess the local economy but regional bank executives see good signs.

“Consumer confidence remains strong and in many cases we’ve seen an uptick in savings,” said Annette Campista, a regional director of Umpqua Bank, which operates in Malheur County.

“We expect a good holiday shopping season this year,” said Lance Rudge, Portland market leader for U.S. Bank, which has branches in Ontario, Vale and Nyssa.

The online survey by the Enterprise indicates that’s true locally.

Seven out of 10 people feel the Malheur County economy is the same or stronger than a year ago. The local unemployment rate was 4.5% in September, slightly higher than the state average but down from a year ago.

There were hints of caution in the Enterprise survey results. About one-half said they would spend the same amount as they did last year while one out of three said they would spend less.

And nearly four out of 10 said they would pay more by cash this year than last.

Kirby said how a holiday shopping season would shake out is hard to predict.

 “That is the biggest guessing game that has gone on forever,” said Kirby.

Kirby said, though, he believes this year will be “what I call a normal year.”

Sarah Rodriguez, owner of Luzetta’s Flowers in Vale, said her business so far this holiday season has been steady.

Up the street from Luzetta’s Flowers, Malinda Castleberry, owner of Mal’s Diner, said she believes the holiday season will be a good one for retailers.

“There seems like there are a lot more people out and about. The community seems more involved this season,” said Castleberry.

Castleberry said the Moonlight Madness sale event held last Friday would be a good indicator of the holiday shopping season.

 “There are a lot of people in it this year and I think that, in and of itself, will make it better,” said Castleberry.

The Enterprise survey found that online shopping would continue to be a challenge for local retailers. Asked to name the top three places where they will buy gifts, 83% of respondents named online, 52% picked Malheur County stores and 30% picked Boise area stores.

For those who plan to shop in Malheur County, 78% said they would do so to support the Malheur County economy and 59% said it was because they were familiar with local stores and businesses.

Internet sales continue to be a threat to local retailers.

The online shopping preference is no surprise to Adam Tolman, who owns Malheur Drug in Vale. He said the shift to online outlets is a bad sign for local, hometown businesses.

“Online sales are just hurting the retail market in general. Online sales, Amazon, will kill the retail industry if people don’t understand how important shopping local is,” said Tolman.

Kirby said that while his business is steady, he wonders how much of it is going online.

“The question for me is what evaporation there is to the internet?” he said.

Local merchants may get a boost when the national Small Business Saturday event kicks in Saturday. Breidenbach said the chamber is a big supporter of the event.

 “We always promote Small Business Saturday the best we can,” Breidenbach said. The Oregon Capital Bureau contributed to this report.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell or reporter Joe Siess at 541-473-3377.

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