Crucial season starts with retailers hoping for best


November 29, 1991|By Michael Dresser

If the only thing to fear is fear itself, Maryland retailers have good reason to be scared stiff by the 1991 holiday shopping season.

In a Sun telephone survey conducted Nov. 8 through Nov. 11, 63 percent of the respondents said they plan to spend less this holiday season than in 1990, which was a miserable year for retailers. Only 6 percent said they would spend more, while 31 percent said their spending would be about the same.

The survey, in which readers were invited to call in to The Sun'Sundial service, is not a scientific poll. It is a rough gauge of the sentiments of Sun readers, not the general population. Some industry observers, when told of the findings, said they probably exaggerate consumer pessimism, but others said the numbers were quite plausible.

"That certainly is not very different from what we found," said Fabian Linden, executive director of The Conference Board's Consumer Research Center, which conducted its own survey and is projecting average household holiday spending of $375 this year, down from $395 last year. Earlier this week, the Conference Board reported its November index of consumer confidence had nose-dived to 50.6 on its 100-based scale, worse than in the depths of the 1981-1982 recession.

But beyond the raw numbers, the recorded comments of Sundial survey respondents and follow-up interviews with callers revealed a striking degree of fear about the direction of the national economy and their own standard of living.

"It's scary," says Kathy Oswinko, a 40-year-old legal secretary from Baltimore who expects to cut last year's holiday spending of about $2,400 to below $1,500. Those words were used by several others to describe their feelings.

"I think you'd have to be lobotomized not to be afraid," said Kathleen Knower, a 47-year-old Annapolis woman whose husband's commercial real estate business has crumbled, cutting family income from about $100,000 to almost nothing. "I think it's going to last 3 to 5 years at least."

"I've never been this concerned in over 10 years," said FreConklin, a 37-year-old Pasadena homebuilder who plans to cut this year's holiday spending by 50 percent. With one child and another on the way, he is thinking of getting a part-time job to supplement his diminished earnings from the depressed homebuilding business.

Even survey respondents who don't share in the fears recognize they exist. "People seem to be psychologically fearful of what's happening to others," said Jim Harrison, 55, the recently retired chief financial officer of McCormick & Co., who plans to spend just as much on gift-giving as in previous years -- morethan $10,000.

But according to The Sun's survey, an actual loss of spendinpower could have just as much to do with curtailed spending plans as fears of what might happen. Forty-eight percent of those planning to cut back cited a decline in family income, while another 28 percent said a family member had been laid off. Meanwhile 47 percent of those cutting back said they feared a possible job loss in the family.

The forecasters' view

The apprehensions of survey respondents are matched by those of retail industry forecasters:

* Kenneth M. Gassman Jr., retail analyst with Davenport & Co. i Richmond, Va., penned the following to sum up his most

pessimistic projection in 10 years:

With Scrooge to my left,

The Grinch to my right,

and Kris Kringle nowhere in sight;

The outlook's not too bright

So, as you look to the sky

and into the night,

Santa's sleigh will be oh so light.

Mr. Gassman expects sales to risenot more than 1.5 percent overall and to decline on an inflation-adjusted basis.

* Joel Evans, co-director of the Hofstra Retail Institute at Hofstra University, predicts consumers will spend 10 percent to 25 percent less than last year.

"I think this holiday season is going to end up being worse than last year, and I think last year was the worst year since the early '80s," he said.

* The Conference Board, a study group supported by many of the largest U.S. companies, projects a holiday spending decline of 2 percent to 3 percent from a year ago on an inflation-adjusted basis.

* Fairfield Research Inc. in Nebraska did a study in October that found that American consumers intend to spend 3.6 percent less on holiday shopping than last year. "Everybody I've talked to says the retail forecast is a lot worse than I've projected," says Ted Lannan, president of the company.

Most forecasters agree that one of the few positive factors influencing the outlook is that a half-million Americans who were away from their families in Saudi Arabia last year will be back for this holiday season.

According to Kurt Barnard, publisher of Barnard's Retail Marketing Report, many of those families will want to make up for last year's unhappy holidays by doing it up extra-special this year.

The retailers' view

Most retailers are keeping their upper lips stiff and their fingers crossed as they approach a season in which even the calendar seems to be conspiring against them.

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