Making spirits bright: Occasionette shines with holiday displays
If there’s one person who outdoes Santa Claus in their holiday planning, it’s Sara Villari.
Villari founded Occasionette in 2013 in South Philadelphia when she noticed the up-and-coming, walkable neighborhood lacked a gift and stationery store. Since its founding a decade ago, Occasionette has expanded to two additional locations: one in Collingswood, New Jersey — its flagship location — and another situated in Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill neighborhood.
Occasionette carries a wide variety of gifts, including a tea towel line started by Villari herself, cookbooks, candles, puzzles, tableware and more. It offers hundreds of greeting cards, carrying lines such as E. Frances Paper, Rifle Paper Co. and Carolyn Suzuki Goods.
But the extensive product offering is not all Occasionette is known for. Each year, Villari goes all out in the holiday displays across each location.
In 2020, post-pandemic occupancy limits were in place as the holidays approached. As a result, Villari decided to kick off Occasionette’s holiday displays in October — significantly earlier than normal — to give customers ample time to shop. Although decorating pre-Halloween may be divisive, Villari admitted with a laugh, her decision was positively received by customers, and Occasionette has kept to that schedule in the years following.
“I’m a Christmas person. I love Christmas,” Villari said. “So I just was like, ‘Well, I think this is just what we do from now on.’ So we started putting out holiday in mid-October. We close each shop for a couple days and stagger when they are closing so that our team can travel from shop to shop and get things merched.”
Even so, prior to October, almost a year’s worth of planning has already taken place behind each display. Although the year’s festivities are still ramping up in November, Villari’s staff members already have their minds on the following holiday season — 11 months before the displays debut in store.
In early- to mid-November, with holiday spirit in full swing, Villari lights some pine-scented candles, gathers her staff by the shop’s Christmas tree, turns on festive music and discusses a few key questions to begin planning for the next year.
“We sit down and we are like, ‘Okay, what do we love? What tables do we think look really great? What do we want to do next year? What are we tired of? What do we want to move on from? And what do we want to keep in terms of our little stories and themes for each table?’” she said.
By making Occasionette’s holiday merchandising decisions so early, Villari said it gives her and her staff abundant time to source for the next year with a crystal-clear vision in mind.
“It really is a 12- or 13-month process for each holiday season,” she said. “That way, we’ve already established what we’re looking for before we hit the trade shows in January. We get through the holidays in December, we do inventory the first week of January and then we basically leave for Atlanta Market. So we try to do the bulk of our holiday and seasonal item- buying at the January show.”
Occasionette typically creates four to five themes — “stories,” as Villari calls them — to direct the displays and product-buying for the holiday season ahead. In 2022, some of Villari’s favorite stories were a pastel vintage theme and a cozy woodland vibe.
To keep employees on the same page when merchandising, the staff at Occasionette names its display stories. One example from recent years? “Mad About Plaid In The Woods.”
“We wanted very woodsy, masculine colors, but we definitely wanted to integrate a strong theme of different plaids like tartan, earth-tone reds and green plaids,” Villari said. “No one else knows our little names for our tables, but each table has its own little guiding title to it.”
As Villari looks ahead to the 2023 holiday season, there’s one table theme in particular that has her spirits high: jewel tones.
“It’s going to be all jewel-toned,” Villari said. “I’m thinking drippy opulence — just very deep, dark, beautiful, saturated colored ornaments and glassware. Very, very colorful, but maybe not traditional Christmas colors. I’m very, very excited about that table.”
On the product-buying front, Villari sees a few trends that she expects will manifest this holiday season. First, she predicts the demand for woodland- themed décor and gifts will continue to grow this year, with customers looking for nature-inspired icons such as mushrooms and trees. Additionally, she sees colored glassware topping customers’ holiday shopping and gifts lists in 2023.
“Colored glassware is really having a moment, and I think it’s because people are really enjoying entertaining right now,” she said. “Cute bar cart stuff is definitely having a moment. Something that I would think a lot of our customers are really looking for is to try new zero-proof spirits and things like that — just having fun with their bar carts.”
Villari believes the holidays are an excellent opportunity to embrace different styles when it comes to décor, whether that’s in a home or retail store.
“If you’re a fairly minimal person the rest of the year, I feel like you can really go over the top for six weeks of the year,” she said. “But also the other way around — if you are just a person who really has a very colorful home to begin with, you can just add little natural accents. You can go as all in as you want, which is my favorite part about [decorating for] the holidays.”
Meanwhile, when merchandising a store, Villari suggests the products be the main displays to both incentivize and inspire customers, as well as encourage Occasionette’s staff to be intentional when making buying and décor decisions.
“For the past few years, we like to let the tables be the decorations in the shops,” she said. “We sell a lot of holiday décor items, so we don’t necessarily put up a ton of garlands around the store or hang a wreath on everything. Most of the decorations in the shop are just the items that are for sale. I think that’s driven the importance to us of really paying attention to what we’re presenting and how we’re merching it because we want it to feel festive. That’s been a guiding principle in how we approach the holidays in the shop.”
Ultimately, Villari said she hopes to elevate the customer shopping experience by curating a space that feels welcoming, inspiring and positive.
“At the end of the day, we just want people to leave happier than they came in,” she explained. “So even if you’re feeling like you’re on a budget that day, that you just want to walk around and browse the store, and you don’t want to buy anything, we think everyone deserves that. You should just be able to walk in, have fun exploring and looking at everything, and browsing. Everyone should just end up leaving happier than they came in. That’s something that’s really important to us.”
Read Holiday Shop 2023, a special issue presented by Gift Shop Plus and Stationery Trends.