It looks like a rerun. After a year of weak retail sales, analysts say they are expecting few dramatic changes in 1996.
"Still sluggish at best," said Mark A. Millman, president of Millman Search Group Inc., a leading retail consulting firm in Lutherville. "People are cautious. They can make do with what they have. They're spending money on big-ticket items. The days of the '80s and yuppies and having the import designer label is out. People are more conscious of pricing. Department stores have gotten more promotional, and everything's on sale all the time. No one, unless they're from Mars, are paying full price for anything."
Tallies for 1995 aren't in yet, but retailers, from Hechinger Co. to Jos. A. Bank, have struggled, pounded by everything from the weather to changing fashions. Already, analysts say, signs for retailers in 1996 point to more pain -- consolidations, layoffs and bankruptcies -- as consumers retrench to pay off high credit card debts.
In particular, the beleaguered apparel sector looks as if it is headed for another flat year. By contrast, hard-good products, such as jewelry, household merchandise and luggage, could see a modest increase, while one of the few bright spots -- consumer electronics -- is expected to lead the pack with an upswing of as much as 6 percent to 7.5 percent, Mr. Millman said.
Few other retail segments are expected to make big gains -- a notable exception being supermarkets and other food-related businesses, where prices are increasing at a slower rate than consumers' disposal income. Then, there is always that compelling
draw: "You have to eat," said Kurt C. Funderburg, an analyst with Ferris, Baker Watts Inc., "so you're always going to buy food."
But that principle doesn't apply to most retailers, and the urgency is already beginning to show.
"A good indication is, I've already started getting catalogs of after-Christmas sales," said Charles W. McMillion, president and chief economist of MBG Information Services, a Washington-based business analysis and forecasting firm. "This will be a period of consolidation and challenges for retailers. The major cause of that is the major customer for products that Maryland businesses produce is the federal government, and the federal government is just not going to be buying as much or paying as much in 1996 as it has in the past. So the retail market in Maryland, and really throughout this region, will be quite slow."
But as bleak as the outlook seems, there is an upside: Retailers, giving up profit to clear out inventory, are expected to offer more bargains.
"It will be a consumer's dream in the retail sector this next year," Mr. McMillion said.