Store owners predict brisk holiday sales

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Jeweler Stephen Weinstein feels so good about sales for the coming holidays that he's just made his biggest and showiest advertising buy ever: an eight-page, pullout supplement in regional editions of the Wall Street Journal.

Mr. Weinstein's company has all of three stores and about $5 million in annual sales. But it spent in the "substantial five figures" to hit 180,000 Journal subscribers from Delaware to Virginia with a classy catalog of rings, bracelets, necklaces and pins at its two Dahne & Weinstein stores in Lutherville.

"We are projecting November and December to be really excellent," Mr. Weinstein said. "We're generally putting our money where our mouth is in terms of optimism."

So are other stores.

With the economy humming, consumer confidence up and many homeowners locked in with the cheapest mortgages in years, retailers expect a better-than-average holiday season. They're stocking more merchandise than normal and in many cases boosting ad budgets.

"I've seen a lot of inventory out there," said Timothy F. Finley, chairman and chief executive of Jos. A Bank Clothiers Inc. of Hampstead. "There's a lot of goods."

Overfull shelves can backfire if the items don't move. But that's not what merchants are planning on. Many expect sales in established stores to rise by mid-single-digit percentages compared with last year's season -- which was the best Christmas in years for many retailers.

"I'm forecasting a 5- to 7-percent gain" in holiday store-for-store sales, said William Ford, senior economic adviser for TeleCheck Services Inc., a Houston-based check authorization concern that closely tracks store results. "When you take out 3 percent in inflation over the past 12 months, that's a 2 percent gain. That's a pretty strong Christmas for retailers.

"Consumers act like they want to go out and do some serious shopping," he said.

The holidays, which for some retailers generate more than 30 percent of annual sales, should be of interest to more people than just store owners and employees. Retail sales make up a huge part of the economy, and positive results this month and next could provide a strong stimulus for business through the first half of 1995, analysts said.

Some merchants were disappointed that the Federal Reserve raised interest rates last week by the highest amount in 13 years. They fear the boost will spook consumers, especially those who carry a balance on their credit cards.

But bigger trends still favor spending, economists said. Homeowners who refinanced with fixed-rate mortgages as low as 6.5 percent in the last year have boosted their household cash flow by hundreds of dollars a month. The Fed's move is expected to push up adjustable-mortgage rates and credit-card rates -- but not right away for many people.

And even if consumers rack up new debt at higher rates, they can expect to hold onto their jobs and make the payments: Unemployment is below 6 percent.

Taken overall, economic trends suggest "a slam dunk" for a decent retail holiday, Mr. Ford said. The National Retail Federation, a big trade group, expects U.S. retail sales for November and December to rise by 6 percent -- on top of a 7.5 percent increase last year.

"I think it's going to be a reasonably good Christmas," said Lynn Sawyer, a retail analyst with NatWest Securities Corp. in New York.

To be sure, few companies expect the 15 percent to 20 percent holiday sales gains that Dahne & Weinstein does. Retail analysts confirm that jewelers should do especially well this year, as the wealthy and near-wealthy buy more luxury goods.

On the whole, though, "I don't think people are looking to spend gobs of money just to spend gobs of money," said David Nevins, an Owings Mills-based retail consultant. Retailers, he added, "are looking for a good season, not an outstanding season."

Charles W. McMillion, president of MBG Information Services, said the outlook for Maryland retailers is more "constricted" than for stores in other parts of the country. MBG is a Washington-based business analysis and forecasting firm.

"Jobs are growing very, very slowly in the state. The greater Baltimore region has been particularly sluggish," he said. "I don't see a disastrous Christmas" for Maryland stores, he added. "But I certainly don't see a strong Christmas."

'Reasonably confident'

The Maryland Retail Merchants Association is more optimistic. It expects a 5 percent increase in holiday sales, and most merchants are "reasonably confident" about the season, said Tom Saquella, president of the trade group.

Nationally, not all stores had a good 1993 season. Clothes sellers were among those that didn't, as lower interest rates diverted money toward new cars, houses and appliances instead of apparel. Big-ticket purchases behind them, consumers now will turn thoughts to dresses and pants and coats and shirts. At least that's the theory popular among clothiers.

"We really struggled last year," said Rick Sarmiento, president of the White House Inc., a Maryland-based chain of 32 women's boutiques. "Indicators are that we'll do well and should be reasonably happy at the end of the season."

Holiday store-for-store sales at the White House could rise by as much as 10 percent to 15 percent, he said.

Other apparel sellers aren't as optimistic, though. A few items have caught buyers' fancy: Timberland hiking boots and other outdoorsy wear continue to be popular, and expensive sweaters seem to be doing well.

"We're very bullish on cashmere and in fact any kind of luxury fabric," said Terri Frick, manager of R.H Macy & Co.'s Owings Mills department store. "We are seeing some very nice results in some of these better categories."

But generally, no must-have fashions are pulling people into haberdasheries and womenswear stores, merchants complain. People are buying functional, utilitarian, relatively flairless clothes.

In the last part of 1993, Baltimore-based Hess Shoes sold $280,000 worth of one kind of boot -- the Polo "Ranger" -- this at a company with about $20 million in annual sales.

This year, "We just don't have the hot item," said Hess President George Bernstein. Even so, he expects Hess' sales to increase by 5 percent for the holidays.

Some people are shopping apparel stores but avoiding the shirt and dress racks. Instead, they're getting scarves, ties, purses and belts to spruce up outfits that they already have.

"Maybe that's why we see the accessory business growing a little more this year," said William H. Carpenter Jr., president of Prime Retail Inc., a Baltimore-based operator of outlet shopping malls.

Sure bets

Apparel aside, the sure bets for Christmas 1994 seem to be consumer electronics, any toy with a Lion King or Power Ranger on it, and home furnishings.

Even furniture, which isn't usually a big holiday item, is selling well, along with linens, curtains, rugs and so forth, retailers report. Macy's continues to move gourmet kitchen appliances that make bread, pasta and coffee, Ms. Frick said.

And like last year, 1994 could be the year of the computer. Personal computers are more powerful, versatile and cheaper than ever, NatWest's Ms. Sawyer said.

For stores that carry them, she said, "I think computers are going to be very strong."

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