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Published: Tuesday, 11/5/2002

Area retailers upbeat about Yule

BY JON CHAVEZ
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Eric and Lisa Gonzales shop at the Talmadge Road store of The Andersons, where officials are bullish on the season. Eric and Lisa Gonzales shop at the Talmadge Road store of The Andersons, where officials are bullish on the season.
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Consumer confidence is down and national retail experts are pessimistic about this year's holiday sales season. Some expect the worst season nationwide in 10 years.

But Toledo area retailers aren't gloomy about the Christmas shopping period that officially began last weekend.

The mood locally ranges from cautious optimism to enthusiasm, with prediction of sales varying from flat to high single-digit percentage increases over last year.

``We're bullish on what the Christmas season is going to be for us,” said Jim Hinkle, director of retail operations for The Andersons general stores. “We've had an excellent year overall and we're hoping it continues right through the Christmas season.”

That is in sharp contrast to predictions by the National Retail Federation in Washington, which estimates per capita spending averaging $649 this holiday season, up just 2.6 percent from what they budgeted last year.

“I don't recall it ever being this bad, with everyone feeling so pessimistic,” said Art Bonnel, manager of U.S. Global Investors' $80 million Bonnel Growth Fund, which sold all its retail stocks in the past four months.

Sales growth is petering out even at discount merchants, such as Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., which drew customers throughout the recession that began last year. A 10-day closure of West Coast ports last month added to retailers' woes by delaying holiday shipments.

Many investors say there's scant evidence large numbers of shoppers will spend lavishly on gifts, and some industry experts forecast a poor holiday period unseen since the last recession, in the early 1990s.

Another possible negative is that this year Thanksgiving falls on the last weekend of November, which means six fewer shopping days between then and Christmas, which is typically the heart of the holiday shopping season that traditionally begins after Halloween.

NPD Group, Inc., a consumer research group, reported last week that 69 percent in a survey of 2,400 of U.S. shoppers plan to spend the same amount as last year, and 20 percent plan to spend less.

However, Mr. Hinkle isn't alone in his optimism.

Ray Martinek, manager of the J.C. Penney store at Westfield Shoppingtown Franklin Park, said he anticipates a sales gain in the fourth quarter.

``We ran a big sale over the weekend, and the results were very good,” he said.

``I know there's a lot of doom and gloom out there. But, gee, we just went through a great weekend. I've been here 15 years and I've seen the economy when it's bad. I don't think the economy is that bad.''

With the unemployment rate at about 6.5 percent in Lucas County and 5.5 percent statewide, experts concede that times aren't great, but they have been worse. Paul Kozlowski, a professor of business economics at the University of Toledo, said the current economy does not have a lot of momentum, which could harm retail sales.

Consumer confidence nationally dipped to a nine-year low in a recent Conference Board report.

``In Toledo, we've seen a small rebound but not a strong rebound,'' Dr. Kozlowski said. ``It's sort of a wait-and-see attitude.”

The uncertainty gives Jeff Jaffe, president of Harold Jaffe Jewelers in Toledo, hope that the season will be a good one.

``My best guess is people are going to pull in the reins somewhat, but they'll still have their big items,” he said. He hopes to stay even with sales of two years ago, the firm's best ever.

Doug Ashmon, manager of the Sears Roebuck & Co. store in West Toledo, is cautiously optimistic. ``I think we will have a small increase in sales. I don't think it will be anything large,'' he said.

The West Coast port strike, now resolved, did delay some shipments to retailers, and Sears might not get some clothing in its local stores until the second week of December, Mr. Ashmon said. ``It will be a crunch for Sears, but nearly everybody else is going to be in the same boat,'' he said.

Kathy Mermer, manager of the Eddie Bauer store at Franklin Park, said her company has its merchandise, but doesn't expect a glowing holiday period.

``We're not expecting huge increases, but last weekend was really good for us,” she said. “I think we'll see a small [increase] if not flat. `The good thing is we haven't overshipped. So, we will be able to sell at prices we want to and not at marked-down prices.''

Bloomberg News Service contributed to this story.



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