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Retailers see prosperous season ahead

November 24, 1996

By GUY FLETCHER

Staff Writer

Of all the things retailers must worry about this holiday season - from an uncertain economy to the possibility of bad weather - the most important might be the calendar.

That's because there are only 26 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the shortest span possible between the two holidays. That translates to five fewer shopping days this holiday season than last year.

"Not only are there five fewer days, but there's one fewer weekend," said Vaneta Rogers, a spokeswoman for Sears. "That's quite a chunk of time."

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Nonetheless, Rogers and other retailers are predicting a better 1996 holiday season than last year's - but how much better depends on who you talk to.

"I think December should be absolutely fantastic this year," said Jamie McVannan, manager of the Kmart in Valley Plaza.

The Maryland Retailers Association is forecasting a 5 percent increase in holiday sales over last year because of job growth, increased consumer confidence and wages that are outpacing inflation. The organization's president, Tom Saquella, called it a "solid but not smashing" increase.

"Those numbers would be smashing, but retailers are more cautious due to last year's disappointing sales and five fewer shopping days this year," Saquella said.

The National Retail Federation is predicting sales to increase 6 percent over last year.

The International Mass Retail Association is being even more optimistic, saying consumers will spend an average of $806 this year compared to last year's $655 - a 20 percent increase.

"There's no question that consumers plan to spend more on average on their holiday shopping this year, but they are still looking for value in their dollars," said Robert Verdisco, president of the international association.

Less promising is the prediction made by Baltimore retail analyst Mark Millman, who said he's hearing of growth in the 2-to-3 percent range, and some retailers he works with are expecting no growth over last year.

"I call it spotty at best. I don't think it's going to be as robust as you hear," Millman said.

His reasoning: Despite the promising economic indicators, continued corporate downsizing, layoffs and mergers are actually lowering consumer confidence in many cases and forcing shoppers to be very careful before going on a spending spree.

"Every time you pick up the paper you read about another company laying off, and people are scared," Millman said.

Promotions

Retailers have already geared up to bring in shoppers with a variety of promotions.

For example, Sears will be offering shoppers discounts and a promotional sweepstakes on Friday, Nov. 29, from 7 until 10 a.m., when shoppers can register to win a $500 shopping spree in every store.

Then on Saturday, Nov. 30, shoppers will get a 10 percent discount on all merchandise from 8 until 11 a.m.

"The idea is to get people in early to shop," Rogers said.

Valley Mall is offering a mallwide gift registry to make shopping easier. It has also opened a play area for children and is renting wagons to parents to pull their children in. A shop-free zone will be set up where people can sit down and take a break from the rigors of shopping.

"It's just helping to make shopping more convenient and less stressful," said Stephanne Saunders, marketing manager for the mall.

Saunders said good sales in October is cause for optimism in the coming month.

"We are anticipating a very prosperous holiday season," she said.

Hot gifts

Like last year, the hot gift item this holiday season can be described in two words: Holiday Barbie. The collector's edition dolls are still tough to come by and are gobbled up as soon as they are put on store shelves.

"Demand is just far outweighing supply," said Kmart's McVannan.

Other popular children's gifts include licensed items based on popular movies like "101 Dalmatians," "Space Jam," "Toy Story," and "Star Wars." Nintendo 64 and new video game systems from Sony and Sega are also in demand.

Kids of all ages will receive cordless telephones, bread makers, power tools and back massagers. Look for folks to buy a large gift for the whole family, like a big screen television or a large home appliance

In fashions, fakes are in, like pleather, which has the feel and look of real leather at a fraction of the price. Faux animal skins are in, too, as are '70s-inspired clothing.

Exercise equipment continues to be popular, especially abdominal toners.

Computers sales are expected to be strong, but a slowdown is expected after two hot years.

Staff writer Franca Lewis contributed to this story.

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