Dreaming of a green Christmas?

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

Santa's sleigh may be a tad lighter this season, and it won't be because he's dropped a few pounds. While retailers remain gingerly optimistic about 2002 Christmas sales, economists are forecasting a less-than-stellar holiday shopping season.

More than two months before Christmas, stores are unpacking the trees and tinsel displays to greet what they hope are hordes of shoppers with lengthy gift lists and fat pocketbooks. But, if economists are right, those pocketbooks may be slightly on the anemic side.

"It's definitely not going to be any better than average, I'm almost certain about that," said Dr. Bruce Domazlicky, director of the Center for Economic and Business Research at Southeast Missouri State University.

Sales have been flat the past couple of months, Domazlicky said, and consumers are being more cautious in their spending. That doesn't bode well for Christmas, he said.

The National Retail Federation announced last month that they expected holiday sales to increase by 4 percent over last year, which is a smaller than the 5.6 percent increase retailers saw in 2001. According to the federation, the holiday season is the months of November and December.

But Domazlicky said he believes even the 4 percent moderate prediction will be hard to reach. People don't have as much disposable income as they did earlier in the year when many were refinancing home loans and putting more of that money into their pockets.

Personal income growth is also limited, as well as a lingering uncertainty about the economy and the chance of a war with Iraq, he said. All of those factors cause consumers to be more cautious, he said.

Rosalind Wells, the chief economist for the National Retail Federation -- the world's largest retail trade association -- echoed some of those concerns.

"Employment is growing but slowly," she said. "Consumer and business confidence has wavered due to corporate governance concerns, the stock market has declined, threats of terrorism persist, and the chance of war with Iraq looms."

Locally, retailers said they have heard the talk of flat sales, but said they expected to do better than expectations.

"Everyone I've talked to has seemed a little bit on the up side," said Chuck McGinty, president of the Downtown Merchants Association and owner of McGinty's Jewelers. "I know there's always a lot of talk about gloom and doom, but no one downtown is down in the dumps. My sales are already up for the year, and we're expecting that to stay the same. Either we're crazy or just very optimistic."

At Famous Barr in Cape Girardeau, general manager Sharon Ebersohl said they are only expecting a 2 percent increase over last year, which she categorized as a "fairly modest gain." She hopes colder weather will drive people indoors -- specifically the doors of Famous Barr.

"Part of the thing has been the weather," she said. "Until recently, it's been unseasonably warm. When it gets cooler, we see a surge. We hope that continues."

Famous Barr already is setting up its holiday displays, as are several other stores in Cape Girardeau.

At Target, store manager Rick Done said predicting shopping trends is a risky business.

"It's really hard to predict what people are going to do," Done said. "We've had a very strong spring and summer season. We're still doing increases, but compared to before, it's not as strong. But all told, truthfully, the way it's looking, I think we'll have a little better than average Christmas."

Done said 4 percent sounded about right for the Cape Girardeau Target.

At Best Buy, which opened recently in Cape Girardeau, store manager Steve Maxcy said he has nothing to compare to, since Best Buy wasn't open here last year. But he said the newness of the store should help them get over the economic hump.

"We're expecting a good fourth quarter," Maxcy said. "It's the newness, but it's also that we get a lot of new models in October. We're getting all-new merchandise that maybe Cape Girardeau hasn't been acclimated to. People are going to want to see that. I feel confident we're going to get our fair share of the business."

Debbie Mullins of Piedmont, Mo., was already out shopping Monday afternoon.

"It's not too early, never too early to get started," said Mullins, who mulled over the Christmas display that is already set up at Cracker Barrel.

Having said that, however, Mullins said she is going to try not to spend as much as she has in years past.

"Sometimes you can't help it," she said.

Joy Hill of Cape Girardeau, also a Cracker Barrel Christmas shopper Monday, said she will probably spend about the same.

"I have a lot of family, and I'll be buying for them," she said. "But I can see why some people are worried."

smoyers@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 137

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