This Year Shoppers Are Carrying Bags

COMMENT

November 29, 1992|By KEVIN THOMAS

Most of the evidence I needed was there in the parking lot.

man dressed as a toy soldier walked about on stilted legs, directing traffic to available parking spaces. Inside, one of his comrades walked around greeting children.

And the message was clear: The Christmas shopping season is upon us and -- dare I say it -- the recession is over. Happy holidays, one and all!

I say all of this with an air of confidence only because of observations I've made over the last few years, all of which I'm proud to say were later confirmed by sagging retail sales figures and the fact that several major retailers went belly up in the process.

But my days of doom-and-gloom predictions may have come to an end. Having spent hours at the Columbia Mall last weekend, I am ready to swear that retail is experiencing some sort of turnaround this year.

Mind you, my trip to the mall occurred the weekend before Thanksgiving, which is when the holiday shopping season traditionally starts.

Not many people were letting that technicality stop them from hitting the mall with a vengeance.

The place was packed. More importantly, the lines at the department store checkouts were outrageous. Hecht's, needless to say, was having its "Biggest Sale of the Year" -- again.

But I was not easily swayed simply by the appearance of a lot of people. I've seen crowds before when the country was in the grip of recession and shoppers were pinching pennies like Scrooge before he got right with his maker.

Indeed, I took a more scientific approach before concluding that this would be one of the brighter shopping seasons in recent years. I counted the number of shopping bags that were being put to use.

The truth is, I lost count. There were just too many. And as every good retailer knows, you're not seriously shopping until you've gotten a shopping bag.

Rod Renner, manager of Columbia Mall, confirmed what my eyes were telling me. According to Mr. Renner, the upswing began in September but has really taken off in just the last couple of weeks.

Mr. Renner, and yours truly included, suspects that this new-found confidence has something to do with the election.

Poor George Bush. Before he leaves the White House, they'll probably blame him for dust bunnies and the fact that chocolate doughnut holes are the first to disappear.

But Mr. Renner has seized on another reason for rising consumer confidence, and I like his reasoning.

People have had three tough years," Mr. Renner said. "They're ready for a little better time."

Boy, isn't that the truth. I don't like to compromise my journalistic integrity by doing public relations work for the retail industry. But if people want to go out and spend a few more bucks this year, I say hallelujah. Things were getting awfully scary for a while there.

Granted, the current recession started off as a kind of interesting lesson on what can go wrong with a debt-ridden economy. Still, austerity and mounting unemployment lose their luster after the first couple of years.

That's not to say that I'm preaching irresponsible behavior on the part of consumers. And the fact is, not too many people that I observed the other day were just throwing money around.

Everything that moved seemed to be on sale. In fact, I think retailers have finally gotten it straight that unless it's on sale, its probably not going to move. And if you can come up with 50 percent to 70 percent reductions, you can move them fast.

The shoppers I saw were not there for a stroll around the mall fountain. My favorite was one die-hard who insisted that she be allowed to use the same coupon as many times as she wanted in the same store. And they let her!

Down in the business district of historic Ellicott City, things were a little more civilized. Except they're gearing up for next Friday's Midnight Madness, when all the stores stay open till midnight and boast big sales and lots of entertainment.

Barry Gibson, Ellicott City Business Association president, is expecting big crowds. But he adds that business has been good for more than a month and looking better.

"Last Saturday business was very good," Mr. Gibson said. "And I think the rest of the shopping season is going to be super."

That's the kind of flat-out optimism that couldn't be extracted from retailers last year with a bullwhip.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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