Darien's businesses worried the slow start to the holiday season would stick around. It mostly didn't.

DARIEN — Local businesses in Darien had an uneven but overall positive holiday season after an initially slow few months driven, some merchants say, by a return to social travel and the return of the Festival of Wreaths.

For many small businesses, holiday sales have become unpredictable between supply chain issues, inflation and, of course, a pandemic that has kept many families apart over the past several years.

According to Chamber of Commerce executive director Kesti Aysseh, local business owners expressed some concerns heading into the holiday season that sales numbers wouldn't be strong, but they appeared to be on the rebound by the beginning of the year.

“I think after the pandemic, you'll always wonder what's around the corner, how will sales go, but I have a good grasp on the people who live here and I feel like they're very supportive and care,” Aysseh said.

Sipsters owner David Wagner said that sales were not bad for his store this year, down from the “crazy rush of 2020 and 2021” but slightly up compared with 2019. 

While he isn’t entirely sure what might have caused the change, he said he suspected the return of holiday travel for many families in Darien to be a primary cause.

“People aren’t at home consuming as much,” he said. “We see people now getting back in the groove ... having people over and being together again.”

Some businesses experienced yearly highs and lows within the span of a few weeks at the end of 2022.

Williams Day Spa owner Julia Ambrosi said the business faced its slowest year for business ever, even slower appointment-wise than 2020. Normally pre-holiday slots are almost entirely booked, but for the first time all year, she had to close early on several occasions because there were so few customers.

Sometimes she had as many as six cancellations in a day, with many clients coming down with COVID-19, the flu or other illnesses, she said.

"My impression was so many people with kids and family were sick on and off after Thanksgiving," she said in an email. "I felt badly mostly for my staff because they work on commission and tips, and December is traditionally the busiest month all year."

However, business suddenly shot back up in the time between Christmas and the new year — a usually slow time — to become one of the busiest periods of the entire year. Business has held steady since, she said.

Other owners, like Darien Town Box’s Bill Jensen, said that the holiday sales settled around the same as last year, confident that “Santa delivered” this season.

“I’m very satisfied with the support we got from everybody,” he said. “I always feel very optimistic about how we can improve for next year.”

One of the new initiatives to drive business during the holidays was the return of the Festival of Wreaths after a six-year absence, modified from one-night-only at the Nature Center to month-long window displays in local storefronts.

Not all of the wreaths, which were auctioned off at the end of the month, attracted as many bids as anticipated, but store owners said that they were a great addition to the festivities that they hoped to see return next year.

Jensen said he got a lot of positive comments on the colorful crayon wreath created for his store by students from St. Luke’s Parish School. 

“You had people putting up their art, their ingenuity, their imagination, and I think that’s always a wonderful thing,” Jensen said. “It brightens up the holiday spirit.”

While she did not participate in the festival this year, Ambrosi said she was open to taking part next year, adding "I saw them around town, mostly on Facebook, and (it) looked really fun!"

Aysseh said that wreaths could be put out earlier next year, to allow plenty of time for bids and give winners more of a chance to display the wreaths in their homes. 

“Like any first time thing, it takes time,” she said. “I think next year it will be a little bit better, and the year after that it will be more well known and people will be expecting the auction to take place in the stores. It just needs to grow.”

Local business is looking up into the coming year, merchants said, as businesses prepare to move into the Corbin District, the downtown development set to enter its second construction phase this month.

Some of the construction has interrupted local traffic around storefronts in the downtown area, Jensen said, limiting parking and making the space a little less walkable. 

“You have to be optimistic and look at it like this is temporary,” Jensen said.

However, business owners were enthusiastic about the development’s potential going into the new year. 

“I think the new restaurants coming in are a little bit of a buzz; it can only create more of a buzz downtown,” Wagner said. “People are excited for it. I think it’s a long time in the making, so it should be pretty exciting.”

As business settles back after the holidays, owners said they hope to drive home just how important it is that residents continue to support local establishments.

“Darien is a unique town and has small businesses downtown that are family owned, that support their soccer teams and support their baseball teams and the local kids and the charities,” Wagner said. “Town residents need to take a larger stand on saying, ‘Look, instead of shopping on Amazon, let me go downtown and see what they have,’ because I think they’d be surprised with how many unique products they can get down there.”