Originally created 11/27/98

Outlook brightens for sales



NEW YORK -- Just a few months ago, few imagined shoppers would be ready to spend this holiday season.

The stock market was plunging, many questioned President Clinton's future, and the global economic situation looked grim.

But things have started to brighten for the nation's retailers. Consumer sentiment is on the rise, and Wall Street is surging once again. That's good news this Thanksgiving weekend, the official start of the Christmas shopping season.

"It doesn't get much better than this," said Carl Steidtmann, chief retail economist for PricewaterhouseCoopers. "We have a very robust consumer environment, with good employment growth and income growth. It should be a good Christmas."

Store owners, however, still have their doubts and won't be satisfied with such bold predictions until they see the numbers at the end of the year. In years' past, strong expectations for the holidays didn't always result in blockbuster sales.

Merchants fear that any stock market volatility or unusual weather in the next month could keep shoppers home.

And people already say they won't go overboard in their holiday gift-buying this year. A new poll of 1,018 adult Americans conducted for The Associated Press by ICR of Media, Pa., showed 58 percent planned to spend about the same for the holidays as they did a year ago, and 24 percent will spend less.

To get people buying this weekend, many stores are running sales offering as much as 50 percent off, hoping that shoppers don't wait until the post-Christmas sales to do their buying.

"Many retailers still worry that this won't be a very good Christmas, and they are not willing to wait until that last week to see if they are right," said Britt Beemer, founder of America's Research Group, a market research group in Charleston, S.C.

Last year, 11 percent of people did their holiday shopping after Christmas, compared with the 9 percent who bought gifts during Thanksgiving weekend, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers, a New York-based trade group.

Regardless, this Christmas is looking a lot better than many expected. Global political and economic turmoil this summer caused Americans to pull back their spending, and many feared that would last through the holidays, when some merchants do as much as 50 percent of their annual sales.

But heading into the Thanksgiving weekend, stocks are near record highs; few believe Mr. Clinton will be impeached; and panic over the global economic situation has subsided.

The Conference Board, a business research group, reported Tuesday that consumer confidence in November rebounded from four consecutive months of declines.

"Consumer confidence took a dive because of what was happening in the equity markets and what was going on in Washington," said Anthony Chan, chief economist at Banc One Investment Advisors in Columbus. "But those worries are gone. People don't think that doomsday is coming to a theater near you anytime soon."

While the outcome of the holiday season won't be known until January, there are some areas of retailing that are expected to outperform the rest.

Discounters like Wal-Mart, Kmart and Target continue to thrive. Even when overall retail sales were weak this summer, discount stores didn't flounder, attracting value-conscious people who like the convenience of one-stop shopping.

Computer and electronics retailers also are expected to have a strong year, thanks to rising demand for inexpensive computers, CD-ROMs and video games. Home furnishing stores will benefit from the booming housing market.

Youth-oriented retailers, like Abercrombie & Fitch, Limited Too and Old Navy also should fare well. Unlike their cautious baby boomer parents, young people have high levels of disposable income that they are eager to spend.