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Holiday shopping is upon us

November 23, 2003|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

Retailers want to know: Will this be a high-spending holiday season?

Magic 8-Ball would say: "Outlook good."

That was the sentiment last week among shop owners and mall marketing directors as the heart of the Christmas and holiday gift-buying season rolls closer.

A few noted industry projections and others cited customer chatter. A few relied on hunches.

Those who study shopping trends and data say Magic 8-Ball has the right idea.

This month, the Maryland Retailers Association predicted that holiday sales will be up 4.5 percent, putting 2003 at a higher level than the previous three years, according to The Associated Press.

Nationally, the projection is equally rosy. A survey conducted for the National Retail Federation in Washington, D.C., found that the average consumer plans to spend $671.89 this holiday season.

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The bulk of that - $518.44 - will be on gifts for others; the rest will go toward decorations, greeting cards and postage, candy and food, and flowers.

That total spending estimate is about 3.6 percent higher than the $648.85 consumers spent last year, according to the National Retail Federation.

Finally, a group of analysts across the country surveyed by the International Council of Shopping Centers in New York City forecast that non-auto retail sales will be up an average of 4 percent this year.

"Everybody's saying it's going to be a good season," said Dan O'Connell, an owner of O'Connell Jewelers in Valley Mall in Halfway. "At least, the economists are."

O'Connell said Christmas club checks have been issued and men have been in to the shop to buy presents. Normally, he said, you might see women by now, but rarely men.

"We are anticipating a great holiday season," said Liza Gonzales, marketing director for Prime Retail, which owns Prime Outlets at Hagerstown. "For the fourth quarter (of 2003), for any retailer, it will be above and beyond last year."

Industry reports of increased sales in apparel and electronics bode well, said Mendy Obitts, marketing director at Chambersburg Mall in Chambersburg, Pa.

Every storefront at Martinsburg Mall is occupied and there are more temporary kiosk vendors than usual, Marketing Director Jeff Garland said.

Both the volume of sales in the fall and the number of people coming in to stores help business owners gauge what might follow.

Brenda Goodwyn, who owns The Figurehead II, a clothes and accessories shop on West Franklin Street in Hagerstown, said business has picked up the last several weeks.

"People are getting out now and spending," she said.

At the same time, customers are using credit cards less and paying for merchandise only with money they have, Goodwyn said.

"I'm hoping for a very positive season. ... The last two seasons have been tough for retail," she said.

Some days, the outlook seems good, and other days it doesn't, said Lori Ruda, who owns the Lena Darner shop on North Potomac Street in Hagerstown. Ruda said her business is largely word of mouth, so she can't be sure, but added, "We've had some people buying Christmas gifts already."

Some customers are picking out holiday wardrobes, she said.

One annual question about the Christmas shopping season is: When does it begin?

For decades, it has been the day after Thanksgiving, a boom time retailers supposedly label "Black Friday" because it pushes their ledgers into the black.

Technically, opening day has not crept further forward.

However, before 'tis the season, it's the "preseason."

The preseason runs roughly from Nov. 1 to Black Friday, said Julie Simmons, marketing director at Valley Mall.

Shopping also takes off when Santa Claus arrives at the mall. That happened Nov. 15.

"Everyone is aware of it," Simmons said. "That shifts everything."

Even in the preseason, though, some retailers start pushing holiday gift sales.

Several stores had their Christmas decor up last week.

And the first thing visitors at Valley Mall, Martinsburg Mall and Chambersburg Mall Web sites see is a pop-up box announcing how many shopping days there are until Christmas. All three malls are owned by Crown American.

Martinsburg Mall's Garland guessed that the preliminary shopping spurt starts annually after Veterans' Day, which was Nov. 11.

Les Verhoek, manager of the Boscov's store that opened Oct. 24 in Frederick, Md., said the preseason starts today.

But if a rise in shopping traffic denotes the lead-in to the shopping season, Gonzales said it started around Columbus Day, in mid-October, at Prime Outlets at Hagerstown.

Valley Mall's Simmons said the makeup of last year's calendar put a crimp in the Christmas shopping season.

There were only four Thursdays last November, so Thanksgiving was on the 28th. That meant only two November shopping days, rather than eight in 2001 and seven in 2000. "We considered it crunch time," Simmons said.

Because of the cyclical nature of the calendar, this year's November will be similar: There will be just three shopping days starting with Black Friday.

Gonzales, though, said the length of the official holiday season is not significant because the preseason starts in October.

This season, Prime Retail plans to continue a marketing effort that Gonzales said worked well last year. Holiday fliers advertising several stores and their sales will be inserted in newspapers and distributed at the center.

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