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Local retailers hope for the best as holiday season arrives

November 27, 2008|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

Two shopping-related organizations have projected sluggish sales for this holiday gift-buying season, across the state and the country.

A few local retailers were less pessimistic and counting on sales promotions, low prices and other niches to see them through.

The fortunes of Prime Outlets at Hagerstown, for example, might fare well as the economy gets tight.

"I think we're in a good position being that we are an outlet center," Marketing Manager Angie Nichols said.

She said customers appear to still be buying, but will "just be looking a lot more for the bargains."

That matches findings of surveys that the International Council of Shopping Centers did this year with Goldman Sachs Group, an investment banking company.

In one survey, 37 percent of respondents said they were likely to spend less money on gifts and other holiday expenses, 10 percentage points higher than last year.

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Another study showed that 45 percent of respondents planned to shop for bargains today or this weekend, when the holiday purchasing season takes off. That's up from 36 percent last year.

Average spending per household, according to one study, was estimated to be $1,154 for the season, with $533 directly on gifts, excluding gift cards.

This month, the Maryland Retailers Association put out a similarly dour prediction. For the first time in 23 years, no sales increase was expected this season, according to a representative survey of the association's members.

This year's customers are expected to be "practical, budget conscious and looking for sales," a press release issued by the association says.

Katie Trent, who owns Alter Ego, a men's and women's upscale clothing boutique in downtown Hagerstown, said she has lengthened her one-week sales to two weeks.

Another downtown shop, Potomac Bead Company, has cut the price of all merchandise 10 percent for a sale today.

Manager Jenni Jones said that instead of buying jewelry, more people are getting supplies to make their own, a less expensive proposition.

Anyone who registers today for a January jewelry-making class will get a 50 percent discount, Jones said.

At Book Cellar, a discount store at Prime Outlets, "we've been doing really well," said Wanda Kissick, the manager.

Some of the shop's sales are wall calendars for $5 and Webkinz for $9.99.

"We are oh so ready," Kissick said.

Wal-Mart in Hagerstown has had very good sales leading up to the season, said Steven James, the manager, who predicted more of the same.

James said Wal-Mart, as a store with low prices, isn't as likely to be affected by people spending less during an economic downturn.

The International Council of Shopping Centers noted that times could be worse.

"Today's financial crisis -- including the government and central bank response -- also has invoked a connection to the Great Depression," it said in a message on its Web site. "However, the weakness in the economy today pales in comparison with the severity and duration of the Depression ... Today's ... projections by even ... the most pessimistic forecasters would not be viewed as very severe, if judged by the Depression era experience.

"Perspective is important."

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