Shoppers talk of cutting back for good


November 29, 1991|By Michael Dresser

In a photo caption in Friday's Sun, the husband of Kendr Roberts was incorrectly identified. His name is Larry Roberts.

The Sun regrets the errors.

A few years ago, Kendra Roberts' Christmas gift to her husband was a gold chain and pendant. This year, the 27-year-old Catonsville woman says, it might be a new pair of shoes.

There are millions of families like the Robertses all over the country. Directly hurt by the recession or fearful they may be the next ones touched by layoffs, they are cutting back on holiday spending plans.


That's the kind of bad news retailers and economists already expect. Most are already resigned to a dismal 1991 shopping season.

But there may be even worse news lurking around the corner. If what Mrs. Roberts and other consumers say holds true, there may be shoes rather than gold under Christmas trees for many years to come -- regardless of what the economy does.

Mrs. Roberts, 27, a former radio reporter and anchor who is stayingat home after having her first baby in August, says she and her family are making permanent changes in their holiday shopping habits.

Where her family used to spend maybe $500 or $600 on gift-giving each holiday season, she says they will spend about half that this year. And when the recession ends, she doesn't expect that to change.

"We kind of learned our lesson with the '80s and the spending spree," she said.

And she's not alone. In a recent, unscientific SUNDIAL telephone survey conducted by The Sun, nearly half (48.5 percent) responded "yes" when asked: "Have you scaled back or are you planning to scale back your holiday gift-giving on a permanent basis?" Nearly 80 percent of those who said "yes" cited the commercialization of the holidays, while 61 percent said they felt their holiday spending had just gotten out of hand.

The survey was not a scientific poll, and it is entirely possible that its methodology skewed the results toward a negative point view. When told of the answer to the above question, some marketing experts suggested that the percentage planning to cut back was way off, while others said it sounded plausible.

Nevertheless, if what Mrs. Roberts and the others say is true, 1991's prime shopping season -- coming on the heels of a miserable 1990 -- might end up as just one in a long string of unhappy holidays. The season when many stores have traditionally racked up more than

one-third of their sales and half of their profits might not be a time of joy for retailers for many years to come.

Certainly Dave Wolinsky thinks so. The South Baltimore bachelor says he used to spend several hundred dollars a year on just a few people. "I'm probably still paying on my credit card bills from last Christmas," he said.

But this year, fed up by what he sees as intensified commercialism and worried by the economy, he expects to spend less than $100. "It's gotten so far away from the point of what Christmas is," he said. "I literally have started to avoid it."

Mr. Wolinsky, a 38-year-old advertising copywriter, says he has changed his approach to the holidays. He hasn't been to a mall in about a year. Instead, he's shopping for gifts in antique shops and secondhand stores.

"I think at least for me it's a philosophical change," he said.

Other consumers say they, too, have changed their philosophies of gift-giving, and they are cutting back in a variety of ways:

* Kathy Oswinko, a 40-year-old legal secretary in Baltimore, says that where she and her 11 brothers and sisters used to all exchange individual gifts, now they are picking names out of a hat and each getting one sibling a present. "It's just gotten out of hand the last couple years," she said.

* Tony Evans, a 54-year-old state government worker in Annapolis who says his income has been eroding for at least three years, says that when better times return he wants to give more to charity rather than rejoin what he calls "the merchandise mania of Christmas season."

* Kathleen Knower, a 47-year-old Annapolis woman who says the family's income from her husband's commercial real estate business has withered to almost nothing, says she and her children are making cookies to give as gifts, as they did last year. "I'm beginning to wonder if my generation is ever going back to credit cards," she said.

* Cherby Worthington, a 32-year-old mother of three in Baltimore, says she has been cutting back her Christmas spending since 1989. She still shops for the children in her family, but she takes a notebook to the toy stores and compares prices diligently. For adults, a gift might be baby-sitting days or handmade crafts, she says. Rather than feeling pinched, she said, "I like this a lot better."

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