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Retailers wish for a Season of Shopping

Retailers are having some Maalox moments as they deck the malls with their Christmas offerings.

Consider the stock market's 554-point tumble Monday.

Or the prediction by Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan that the stock turbulence could cause the economy to slow a bit in the months ahead.

Or the predictions by consumers such as Shelly Terlep, a Spring Hill mother of two, who figures it's time to cut back on gifts. "We want to be less materialistic," said Terlep, 34.

Indeed, the National Retail Federation is taking heed. The trade group this week will trim its earlier forecast of a 4 percent to 6 percent gain in general merchandise sales this holiday season to a milquetoast 3.5 percent to 4 percent increase.

Even before the stock market's wild ride, strong summer sales growth and soaring consumer confidence sagged in October. Though some economists who keep track of consumer confidence doubt stock market jitters will curb holiday spending, others aren't so sure.

"It could rob retailers of the big gains they hoped to get over last year's performance," said George Rosenbaum, chief executive officer of Leo J. Shapiro & Associates, a Chicago-based consumer research firm.

"It might heighten consumer awareness to other bits of bad news."

Retailers, who snare a quarter of their annual sales and as much as half of their annual profits in the next two months, are eternal optimists. They figure this season could be their best since the 1980s.

They have one extra shopping day between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve this year. Christmas falls on a Thursday, so retailers have visions of a six-day stretch to whip shoppers into a last-minute shopping frenzy.

From a consumer standpoint, the economy remains strong: Unemployment is very low; inflation is minimal; and wages are up. "Everybody's optimistic," said David Doub, president of the 55-store Southeast Division of Dillard Department Stores Inc.

"Usually I just say I'm cautiously optimistic about Christmas," said Bob Beall II, chairman of Bradenton-based Beall's Inc. "This year I'm very optimistic."

"Retail Holiday Season Should be a Humdinger," read a headline in Women's Wear Daily on Sept. 29, right after retailers executed the last of their Christmas buys.

As usual, however, such optimism, anchored in the wisdom that you can't sell it if you don't have it, led the nation's retailers to load up too much stock for holidays. That could mean lots of profit-gobbling markdowns to move unsold merchandise. Meanwhile, other problems such as record levels of consumer debt and subtle changes in the ways Americans celebrate the holidays are teaming up to temper the early optimism.

"Christmas will be fine, but no barnburner," said Jay Meltzer, managing director of LJR/Redbook Research, a New York firm that tracks general merchandise sales. The firm agrees with prospects for a modest 4 percent sales gain, which would be slightly better than last year's 3.3 percent gain.

"All the positives we had last year are the same this year, and the sales gains through the first nine months of 1997 match up with 1996, too," said Irwin Cohen, co-chairman of Deloitte & Touche's retail consulting group in New York. "We see this Christmas mirroring last Christmas."

Last week's stock market turmoil sent economists back to the files to see what happened to consumer confidence after the 1987 crash. The answer: not much.

The October 1987 crash sucked three times as much value out of the stock market overnight as did last week's short-lived plunge. Unlike the rebound that followed last week's drop, the market took months to recover 10 years ago. This time, most small-time investors did not panic and bail out.

"The crash in 1987 had no effect on Christmas spending," said Lynn Franco, an economist who tracks national consumer confidence for the Conference Board.

"We initially misread the effect of the crash in 1987," said David Denslow, an economist with the University of Florida Bureau for Economic and Business Research, which compiles the Florida Consumer Confidence Index. "A lot of people harkened back to memories of the crash of 1929. But within a week, our surveys found people saying, "So what?' A few months ago we asked Floridians whether a 20 percent drop in the stock market would influence their spending. Most said it would not. They were in the market for the long haul. That seems to be what happened this time."

In fact, measures of consumer confidence had peaked even before Wall Street's wild ride last week. The ABC News/Money magazine Consumer Comfort Index slipped to 5, down from a record high of 14 in September. The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index dropped seven percentage points to 123.

"That's still stronger than last year at this time," Franco said. "We think we're seeing the beginning of a plateau. After all, how much better could things get? The Christmas holidays look neither lackluster nor blockbuster. I see just a moderate gain."

Meanwhile, many experts say that after four consecutive years of moderate sales gains at Christmas, retailers must stop leaning on the holidays to make or break their year. Indeed, Christmas has slipped to 24 percent of retailers' annual sales, down from 26 percent in 1992.

"Many people have liberated themselves from the obligatory gift-giving hold Christmas once represented," Rosenbaum said.

Over the past few decades, gift giving has been complicated by family members being dispersed all over the country and by divorce, which makes many choose whether to spend Christmas with Mom or Dad. Half of all people ages 17 to 29 today grew up in divorced families.

"Like many traditions in the United States, Christmas has been less important to Generation Xers," said Cohen, noting that Halloween has replaced Easter as the second-biggest holiday of the year for retail sales.

Meanwhile, many baby boomers in their prime earning years are more interested in investing for their retirement or their children's college than splurging on Christmas.

Consider Terlep, the Spring Hill shopper. She doesn't want her two daughters, Olivia and Hannah, to think of Christmas as a time for greed. Last year, the children were showered with gifts from aunts and uncles. "My husband and I were horrified to see them opening so many things," she said.

Others cite a lack of compelling new products to spice up Christmas because manufacturers now unveil them year-round.

"People will be spending more this year on Christmas, but a lot of it won't be in stores," said Britt Beemer of Orlando, chairman of America's Research Group. "All I hear is the American consumer is tired and wants a break to relax. Today, getting away is worth more than a physical present."

He predicts up to 28 percent of households will make the ultimate break from Christmas _ they will leave town for a vacation.

_ Times staff reporter Teresa Burney contributed to this report.


The stock market's wild week makes some economists question how it will affect consumer spending during the upcoming holidays. Times reporter Teresa Burney asked shoppers at Franklin Street Mall and Countryside Mall if the recent turmoil will affect their spending plans.

"My kids expect me to spend more," said David Hipp, 44, of Tampa. But he probably will spend the same. "We've already put things on layaway. That way it doesn't seem like so much at once. I am not putting anything on credit cards this year."

Don Karns, 67, of Dunedin, said he's going to spend the same as last year. The stock market's ups and downs don't worry him. "I think most people, when they invest, invest for the long term. For the average person, I don't think it (the stock market) has any effect" on holiday spending. "Unless you are the CEO of IBM or something."

Donna Bollman, 39, of Clearwater, said: "We will probably spend close to the same. We are long-term investors, so I am not that concerned about the stock market."

Raymond Sustache, 32, of Clearwater, said he will spend "practically the same." He figures the economy isn't "that bad, so I am not worried."

"I will probably be spending less, but not because of the economy," said Karen Blakely, 41, of Tampa. "I just got divorced."