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Merchants report back-to-normal sales

Holiday retail outlook in state: surprisingly promising

At Northpark Mall in Ridgeland, patriotic symbols line the corridors, and a 20-foot by 30-foot American flag is prominently displayed at center court.

In the first week of November, they’ll come down to make room for traditional Christmas decorations. However, holiday marketing plans already have been tweaked to include a patriotic theme.

“We had a slumber party theme planned for Santa’s arrival Nov. 9, but we’ve changed it to a more patriotic theme,” said Susan Marquez, marketing manager for Northpark Mall. “Two days later, we’ll celebrate Veteran’s Day by giving away flag pins to veterans and their families.”

Pride and patriotism will be at the forefront of the holiday spirit, said Jeff Snyder, general manager of the Mall at Barnes Crossing in Tupelo.

“The events of Sept. 11 have brought people together, along with the focus of going on with their lives despite the issues,” he said.

Tommy White, marketing director of Bonita Lakes Mall in Meridian, said he didn’t think people were in denial about the terrorist attacks or current threat of danger to the U.S.

“I believe many people are trying to escape the constant television

broadcasts of what has happened and what could happen, and are choosing to shop as a means of escape,” he said.

By all accounts, retail sales are back to normal. That’s good news for retailers who watched sales plummet on Sept. 11, the day of the terrorist attacks. Northpark Mall closed at 1 p.m. that day “out of respect,” Marquez said.

“It was also a good business decision because very few people were still here by that time of day,” she said. “A couple of days later, you could roll a bowling ball through the mall. But by the weekend, several merchants reported double-digit increases over the same weekend last year. I think people were so tired of sitting in front of the television that they needed to get out. There were still necessities and birthday, wedding and baby gifts to be purchased.”

An economic slump had put a damper on retail sales nationwide before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, with concerned retailers placing some holiday orders on hold in late summer. The same retailers are now scrambling to buy hot-selling patriotic items.

“Most merchants are donating part or all of the proceeds of patriotic items to one of the Sept. 11 charities,” Marquez said.

Bucking the national trend, many retailers have posted above average sales figures, said David Meadows, general manager of Turtle Creek Mall in Hattiesburg.

“Year to date, we are up in sales,” he said. “While sales for September appear to be flat or slightly down at this time, our region is performing above the national average. Many merchants have reported good sales for the first days of October…only time will tell if the sales will remain positive.”

Meadows said the cool snap helped apparel sales, fueling double-digit increases for many merchants.

Like many Christian bookstores in the U.S., the Bible Book Store at Bonita Lakes Mall in Meridian posted a 10% increase in sales the month after the terrorist attacks — the store’s most significant year-to-date increase, said White.

“Overall for that period, mall sales increased more than 3%,” White said. “We started September with a very successful Labor Day sidewalk sale. Mall-wide, sales were up for the five-day period some 24%. Because it was so successful, we followed up with an after Labor Day sidewalk sale and again saw positive results.”

In early October, Chick-Fil-A at Bonita Lakes Mall reported a 20% increase in sales and other retailers were reporting significant increases, White said.

Despite the soft economy, back-to-school sales before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were “very encouraging,” Snyder said.

“We are forecasting a positive holiday season,” he said. “We do realize that we are in uncharted waters due to the events that followed Sept. 11 and it’s hard to accurately forecast with so many unknowns. Many merchants are somewhat surprised how well sales have been despite the unusual factors.”

Even retailers of luxury items, such as jewelry, are optimistic about the holiday season. As a result of the national tragedy, engagements and weddings are on the rise.

“A young man who had bought a very large diamond engagement ring for his sweetheart intended to make one final payment prior to her birthday in November, but he came in yesterday and said he wanted the ring now,” said Susan Light of Light’s Jewelers in Hattiesburg. “Many people are realizing that life is very precious and there are no guarantees. If they have something really significant they want to do in their lives, they’re doing it now.”

Last month, Light considered cutting back on the jewelry store’s original buying plan. Instead, she increased buying in some areas, she said.

“I don’t think our clients will let the horrors of what happened to this country affect their shopping for the coming holidays, but I think they’ll wait until closer to Christmas than they ever have before,” Light said. “All of us have a greater sense of apprehension than ever before. But no matter what happens, Christmas will still come.”

Even though many malls are beefing up security, nobody’s talking specifics. Marquez said she couldn’t comment on security adjustments made since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but pointed out that the situation is monitored daily.

“We take security very seriously,” she said. “Our security department does a fantastic job, and it’s really very interesting to see how scientific their evaluations are. We work closely with the Ridgeland Police Department, and if they’re not on the property when we need them, they can be there in a minute.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com or (601) 853-3967.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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