Retailers, shoppers leery of economy

March 27, 1991|By Kevin Thomas | Kevin Thomas,Evening Sun Staff Liz Atwood and Michelle Singletary contributed to this story.

Patty Hafferkamp was shopping at the Columbia Mall yesterday, looking for ways to make up for the cuts she imposed on her Christmas shopping last year.

The mother of five children said that in recent weeks she's felt less concerned about the national recession and has decided on giving some belated holiday gifts. She may even loosen her purse strings enough to buy a new car.

Despite her newfound optimism, Hafferkamp said, she's still wary.

"Everything I've bought recently has been on sale," she said.

Throughout the area yesterday, shoppers and retailers expressed cautious optimism that the recession may be turning around.

A report released yesterday by a leading business research group showed consumer confidence on the upswing nationwide.

The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index, based on a survey of 5,000 U.S. households, jumped to 81 in March, compared with 59.4 in February. It was the largest month-to-month gain recorded since the survey began 24 years ago.

The report joins other recent indicators in sounding a positive note about the economy, including increases in housing starts and retail sales, as well as declines in oil prices.

But, with inflation still high and orders for big ticket items continuing to fall, some hesitancy still exists in the marketplace.

Retailers and store managers interviewed yesterday were guarded about the possibility that the recession may be ending.

"It's a little early to tell at this point," said William Schu, manager of the Sears at Security Square Mall in southwestern Baltimore County. "We're seeing spurts of an improvement, but nothing definite at this point."

Schu and other retailers cautioned against reading too much into an improvement in retail sales right now, saying that the coming of spring is likely to produce no more than a small surge shopping for clothes and lawn and garden items.

At Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., which operates 13 retail operations that sell appliances and home entertainment equipment, director of merchandising George Wetzel Jr. said that the last couple of weeks have brought more customers into the store.

The result has been a "very slight" upturn in sales, Wetzel said.

"I think we're seeing a general improvement in consumer attitudes," he added. "But we still have a very large way to go."

Local car dealers, too, said they are seeing more traffic in their showrooms, but disagree over whether that will translate into more buyers.

"I think things definitely look better than they did, but we're not out of the woods," said Bernie Finan, manager at Archway Ford.

Finan said sales are down 20 to 25 percent from last year at this time, but there has been steady improvement since the first of the year, he said. "We'll really know by June," he said.

Larry Caulk, vice president of Griffith Management Services, which operates eight dealerships in Maryland and Pennsylvania, including Griffith Honda and Griffith Hyundai, said in the past 30 days business has approached normal. "People are having more faith," he said.

But Gary Hurley, president and owner of City Oldsmobile on Edmondson Avenue, said he believes much of the improvement is due to the time of year rather than a change in attitude.

"Most I find are lookers," he said. "Traditionally, people look for cars in the spring time and in the fall."

Annie Frazier, a private duty nurse shopping at Mondawmin Mall yesterday, said her shopping habits slowed considerably when she stopped getting as many nursing calls. Recently, however, work has been steadier and she's started to venture into the stores again.

"I'm more confident now that I'm working," she said. "Things are starting to pick up."

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