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In the dark of holiday retail, a scented candle lights the way

ELLENTON — Darkness here.

The brake lights stretched half a mile to the exit to the mall. These people had left their homes, their families, on Thanksgiving, so they could sit in a traffic jam in the middle of the night so they could shop. This was the nocturnal start of the nation's annual, half-a-trillion-dollar holiday consumption spree.

At the Prime Outlets, as late Thursday night turned to early Friday morning, there were people wearing flip-flops and Santa hats and pajama pants, people pushing strollers, people pulling suitcases, hunting down the cheapest prices on the most-wanted stuff.

But they came to Yankee Candle chasing something else. Stacked and sorted on the store's pungent shelves were the scents of Christmas Eve, Christmas Morning, Christmas Tree and Christmas Wreath.

Christmas Cookie. Christmas Pudding. Christmas Punch.

Merry Christmas. Happy Christmas.

Christmas Magic. Christmas Wish.

Christmas in a jar.

Christmas up the nose.

Sue Newman walked in with a fanny pack and an empty red wagon.

• • •

Americans buy not quite $4 billion worth of candles every year. The specialty scent sector makes up about half of that. Yankee Candle is the leader. The company's "promise" is to "seek out fragrance ideas that will evoke the pleasant memories and experiences of everyday life" and to be "constantly developing new and better ways to enhance the lives of our customers." Its sales are up at a time when the economy is down.

The founder has bought a 17,500-square-foot house on Jupiter Island with four acres of beach. He has bought a house in Nantucket, Mass., with a wine cellar of 2,000 bottles. He has bought a 197-foot custom yacht.

He once told a reporter his company doesn't sell wax and wicks. What his company sells, he said, is nostalgia. Fantasy.

Large jars are 22 ounces. They retail for $24.95.

The Black Friday special at the outlets: six for $60.

In his book Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present, Hank Stuever, the Washington Post culture critic, says the holidays make people look for "some lost aroma of the real."

Two years ago on Black Friday, a predawn rush of 2,000 people at a Walmart in New York state trampled to death a temporary worker. "Savages," witnesses said.

Here this year, people pitched tents. Children slept on benches. The floor of a stall in the men's room was covered with dirty, stomped-on coupon books.

Back at Yankee Candle, a woman drank a Red Bull. A candle hit the floor. The sounds of shattering glass.

Sometimes the clerks eat Advils to make it through shifts. With the earth's most authentic scents, a little goes a long way. Not here. The overwhelming smell is industrial-kitchen vanilla mashed with dryer sheets mashed with mixed berry and Pine-Sol.

"Are you finding what you want?" the clerks ask.

Sue Newman, 66, a retired motel owner from Pennsylvania who has lived in Sarasota County for more than 30 years, stood at the register with six big candles and some gift baskets with snowman figurines.

"$106.46, please."

• • •

The sense of smell is our strongest sense. Chemicals in the air dissolve in the mucus in our nostrils. The process triggers in the most primitive parts of our brains associations of odors with memories and emotions.

Yankee Candle promotional materials say Christmas Eve smells like "traditional holiday scents of a warm hearth, sugared plums, and candied fruits." Hearthside is "like the cozy warmth of crackling pine logs." Winter Wonderland is "so real you can almost hear sleigh bells." Christmas Tree is "like going out in the snow to find that special tree."

Everything's like. Nothing is.

Sue Newman walked outside with her now-filled wagon. She was shopping with her daughter-in-law. She was going to be shopping all night long, and then all day long, until it was dark all over again.

She puts her Yankee Candles in her kitchen. In her dining room. Her bedroom. Her bathroom. Sparkling Snow is her favorite. "Gleaming, snow-covered pines with hints of patchouli and fruit …"

To her, she said, Yankee Candles smell like safe.

When she gets home, "I flip on the security system, and I put on the TV," she said, "and I light my candles."

News researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

In the dark of holiday retail, a scented candle lights the way 11/26/10 [Last modified: Friday, November 26, 2010 10:04pm]
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