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Shopping at home, around world for Christmas

The View From Here

Preliminary results are in on Holiday Shopping Season 2000, and the nation’s retailers are reporting less-than-spectacular sales. In fact, from large department stores in our malls to small shops on Main Street, sales of all things for Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa are down and disappointing.

And who knows why Americans aren’t spending so freely this year. Might be the protracted presidential election. The early winter weather. Skyrocketing energy prices. A market “correcting” itself after a historic bull run. Whatever the reasons, this consumer caution — malaise perhaps — is contributing to what many analysts see as a coming economic recession.

But not at my house.

My wife and I did our part to spread around the Christmas cash. We shopped locally, at Lemuria Books in Jackson; regionally, at Cahaba Cycles in Birmingham; nationally, at Mountain Board Sports in Colorado Springs, Colo. (www.mountainboard.com); and internationally, at Amazon.co.uk — on the Web from Britain.

We visited a number of other Jackson-area stores to finish our gift buying for the holidays, and I think that the way we shopped is where retailing is headed. For most things, folks will stay local and buy from bricks-and-mortar stores. But if you can’t find what you need, going online — or having your sister-in-law in Alabama check out her local bike shop and then schlep a Trek kid’s bike back to Mississippi for your three year old — are attractive options.

And the shopping didn’t end before Dec. 25th for our family. It continued the day after.

My wife was storming the stores at Bonita Lakes Mall in Meridian at 8 a.m. Dec. 26th. I talked to her mid-morning as the mall was filling up — albeit slowly, she said — with bargain-hunters, and she told me that there were plenty of deals to be had.

According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, 11% of holiday buying in 1999 took place during the week after Christmas. That exceeds the 8 1/2% during the Thanksgiving weekend shopping kick-off. This year’s numbers are expected to be about the same.

Unfortunately, the great after-Christmas sales started before Christmas this year. The extended price-slashing period brought more folks into stores, but already thin retail profit margins have been stretched even thinner.

Consumer spending fuels two-thirds of the U.S. economy, and holiday sales tend to account for about a quarter of retailers’ annual sales.

Bank executive Michael Niemera told MSNBC.com last week that a weak Christmas is a precursor of next year’s economic performance. He had just reduced his holiday sales forecast from a 4% increase to 3.5%.

“I think we are going to see more problems ahead for 2001, with store closings and liquidations,” Niemera said.

Rather gloomy, eh? Have no fear though; hope looms on the horizon. Analysts expect the Fed to reduce the prime rate in January, and that is expected to spark business and consumer economic activity — just in time for my birthday.

People, what other reasons do you need to spend: lower interest rates and my birthday? My 30th birthday? Isn’t that some sort of milestone?

Buy now. Buy later. But buy. Keep that economy humming, and I’ll write the thank-you note to Alan Greenspan.

Wink. Wink.

In all seriousness, it’s easy to be swept away by the overwhelming commercialization, unrealistic expectations and stress of the holidays. The joy of the season for far too many people has been destroyed by irritating sales pitches and mountains of debt. And we all know that that’s not what this time of year is all about, right?

But you can’t deny the importance of holiday buying to a healthy economy, and it’s great fun to find those perfect gifts for your family and friends.

All we need is a little balance. Moderation. The middle path. And that’s what I’ll be thinking about as we begin 2001.

Happy New Year.

Contact MBJ editor Jim Laird at jlaird@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1018.


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