Major retailers doubt seasonal splurge will last

December 08, 1992|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,New York Bureau

NEW YORK -- Leading retailers said yesterday they are expecting the best Christmas season in four years but admitted that the buying binge probably will not last into next year.

Retail sales should go up by about 6 percent this Christmas as opposed to 2 percent last year, the retailers said, largely because of improved consumer confidence. The hitch to a sustained pickup, however, is employment, which may improve only slightly next year.

"I don't see a robust economy. I see 2 to 3 to 4 percent increases [in the gross domestic product] over the next few years," Kmart Corp. Chairman Joseph E. Antonini said at a round table of several retailing executives, sponsored by the National Retail Federation.

Layoffs at big companies, such as General Motors Corp., and defense cuts, which are hurting Southern California and New England in particular, will lessen the ability of consumers to spend. These structural changes in the U.S. economy and an aging baby boom mean that the big spending years of the 1980s will not be repeated soon, said Daniel Sweeney of Price Waterhouse, the federation's economic consultant.

The key to 1993, retailers agreed, is next year's first three months, which will show if consumers have money to spend even when the holidays are past.

"I'm not sure what to expect next year, but based on the past three months, I have to be optimistic," said Charles Reynolds, chairman of Reynolds Brothers Inc., who reported strong sales at his New Jersey stores in the first week of December.

Like last year, consumers are bargain-hunting, said Daryl Routzahn, president of Routzahn & Sons Inc., which has several women's clothing stores in western Maryland. Competition is intense, he said, so retailers will have to fight hard to survive.

Despite the competition they face, retailers have become popular investments on Wall Street, where analysts believe that the economic upturn will release pent-up demand.

The stocks of specialty stores, such as Toys 'R' Us Inc. and Home Depot Inc., are up an average 27.9 percent, while the stocks of department stores, such as Dillard Department Stores Inc., May Department Stores Inc. and J. C. Penney Co., are up 17.2 percent. The stocks of general merchandise retailers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Dayton Hudson Corp. and Sears, Roebuck & Co., are up 14 percent.

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