CLIFTON PARK – At Wit’s End Giftique, a special room twinkles and glitters all year-round.
An eye-popping wonderland of Christmas tree decorations, it’s brimming with ornaments for every interest and occasion: kittens and puppies, sushi and cupcakes, violins and saxophones, martinis and beer mugs, brides and babies. There’s even an ornament with jolly ol’ St. Nick baring his arm for a COVID jab.
Wit’s End, on Route 9 in Clifton Park, is the biggest Christmas store in upstate New York, according to the website Only in Your State, and it draws shoppers not only from the Capital Region and the Northeast but from across the country and Canada.
“I never wanted to be known as a ‘Christmas store,’ ” says owner Susan Hoffman. But not long after the store opened in 1975, she realized that holiday shopping could be her “secret sauce.”
“If I cultivated the most magical Christmas shopping experience in town people would keep coming back year-round.”
In 1998, Hoffman took the holiday theme up a notch, posting 15-foot-tall toy soldiers on the store’s exterior that were exact replicas of the ones that once flanked the entrance to Cartier on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. After dark, the illuminated sentries and a gigantic American flag catch the attention of drivers buzzing up the Northway.
For Hoffman, who is celebrating her 48th holiday season as the sole operator of the independent gift and clothing store, it’s all about the shopper’s experience, from a room dubbed “Fashion Capitals of the World” to hundreds of antiques that decorate the 30,000-square-foot store.
Hoffman loves antiquing, and during a recent tour she paused often to talk about items she’s acquired from long-gone homes, schools and businesses in the Capital Region, such as a sign from a Dutch apothecary on Schenectady’s Union Street and an ornate mirror from the old Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga Springs.
Looking up at a traffic stoplight hanging from the ceiling, Hoffman recalled how she and her father, the late Paul Hoffman, were driving in Glens Falls about 40 years ago as the city was replacing old lights with modern ones. They ended up bringing the discarded lights back to the store.
“People come from all over to see the antiques,” Hoffman says. A while back, the TV reality show “American Pickers” contacted her, “but they said the store was too neat.”
The “Fashion Capitals of the World,” a women’s clothing department unwrapped in 2011 after a 10,000-foot addition, is dazzling and theatrical, with props and signs evoking the cities of New York, London, Paris and Tokyo that were created by a New York City design team, with plenty of input from Hoffman.
“It was the most fun project I ever worked on. I love detail,” she says, pointing to King Kong atop a model of the Empire State Building, a Barbie doll gripped in his hand.
Hoffman believes in the power of the in-person shopping experience. “I have no plan for online shopping. I want to perfect the in-store experience. Retail is theater,” she says.
She also believes in retail therapy.
“Customers tell me that this is their go-to place when they are sad.” And that makes her happy, she says, “knowing that I’ve built something that really brings joy to others.”
The most challenging part of her job — and the most fun — is figuring out what customers want.
“I keep reading, I travel, I go on a lot of buying trips. We’re trendy but not too trendy,” so the goal is finding new and unusual items while sticking to “tradition” and “quality.”
This holiday season, Hoffman predicts that the food department, a room of dips, dressings, jams and baking mixes, will be bustling.
“With food prices so high people are going to be happier than ever to unwrap food gifts.”
She expects that women’s clothing, especially loungewear and comfy sweaters, will be a hot item, too. “People are still working from home, and that casual, relaxed look has stayed popular.”
While the merchandise is constantly updated to match changing tastes and trends, the Wit’s End experience has much in common with the locally owned department stores that baby boomers grew up with.
In the parking lot, visitors hear Christmas carols softly playing. Inside, shoppers are warmly greeted by sales associates. One can order a wreath or centerpiece that’s custom-made in a basement workshop. Wit’s End also offers personal shoppers, gift wrapping and the personalization of gifts with engraving and calligraphy.
When it comes to advertising Hoffman is far from old-fashioned, as she has embraced social media with help from her daughter, Lexi Nahl, a former WTEN Channel 10 news reporter with degrees in business/corporate communications and public relations. Check out Instagram, where you’ll see Hoffman dancing down a store aisle to singer Taylor Swift’s “Anti-Hero.”
The daughter of a builder/developer and member of the Capital Region family that brought us Hoffman’s Playland and Hoffman’s restaurant, Susan learned about running a business as a young girl scooping ice cream and playing the organ for customers.
Born in Albany and raised in Newtonville, she was in her 20s, fresh out of college, when her dad built the store and she took charge.
When Wit’s End opened it was 5,400 square feet and sold candy, candles, soap, jewelry, crystal and collectibles. Today, after four additions, it’s more than five times larger, and Hoffman commands a crew of 75 employees, including eight buyers.
Hoffman is forever grateful that her father was ahead of his time in supporting her as a woman business owner.
“There weren’t many women in retail and a lot of men raised an eyebrow,” she says. “Lenders, vendors, competitors … a lot of people said I wouldn’t make it. My dad gave me the courage to not listen to all that noise. He encouraged me to shoot for the stars, and I’m sure if he was here today he would just say, ‘wow.’ ”