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Merchants expect strong holiday sales

Katie Perry | Friday, December 3, 2004

While a new football coach had topped the Christmas wish-lists of many Domers this season, Tuesday’s announcement may have caused Notre Dame students to lean toward more materialistic gift-giving endeavors and – in concert with the rest of the nation – increase their holiday spending.

Contrary to October’s consumer surveys, which indicated an overall decrease in consumer confidence, recent economic studies demonstrate a more optimistic prediction of the 2004 holiday shopping season.

A poll by the National Retail Federation found that the average U.S. consumer will spend over $700 this season, a 4.5 percent increase from last year.

The effects of increased consumer confidence were felt in Mishawaka this past weekend as local retailers experienced a flurry of holiday shoppers.

“Last weekend was very busy locally and we have every reason to believe that a 4 to 5 percent increase over last year is achievable,” president and CEO of the St. Joseph County Chamber of Commerce Mark Eagan said.

South Bend and its surrounding areas form a regional shopping destination that garners customers from a 50-mile radius. It is the second largest retail concentration in the state outside of Indianapolis, said Eagan.

One of the major shopping destinations in this region that experienced an increase in sales this weekend was the University Park Mall. According to mall manager Sara Zappia, heightened consumer confidence was evident.

“Based on just the first several days of the season, traffic is definitely up,” Zappia said.

Although Zappia and other local retailers are optimistic about the recent trends, experience has taught them not to jump to a hasty conclusion and label the entire season a success.

“[The 4.5-percent increase] is probably a good estimate for the season,” Zappia said. “However, it is really difficult to gauge after just one weekend.”

James Sullivan, an assistant professor of economics and a specialist in labor economics and public finance at Notre Dame, agrees it is hard to make broad estimates on the success of the holiday shopping season when these predictions are based solely on preliminary sales and consumer spending surveys.

“Sales figures for Black Friday show a 10.8 percent increase over last year while the country’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, reported that November sales failed to meet the company’s expectations,” Sullivan said. “Given the mixed re-views, retailers are being very cautious in their optimism.”

Recent polls indicating an increase in consumer spending are based on the current financial atmosphere and the way in which Americans perceive the economy. According to the Shopping in America survey conducted for The Macerich Company, 82 percent of the over 6,000 shoppers surveyed felt the economy this season is just as strong as if not stronger than last year.

Economists have attributed the general public’s faith in the economy to a strengthened job market, a recovering economy and a heightened sense of national stability after November’s uncontroversial presidential election results.

“The fact that we have elected a president without a prolonged legal battle has bolstered consumer optimism,” Sull-ivan said. “Consumer confidence seems to be very sensitive to uncertainty.”

Grace Gall-away, the online blogger and holiday shopping expert known as the “Gift Guru,” has dubbed this season as the “Techno Retro Year.” Accor-ding to Galla-way, classic items with high-tech twists will be prevalent under trees across the nation this Christ-mas. Toys such as a suped-up Easy Bake Oven and electronic Etch-a-Sketch are destined for popularity, said Gallaway.

Overall, however, the Shopping in America Survey found clothing to be the most popular holiday gift category – a statistic that points to a successful holiday season for Hammes Notre Dame bookstore.

The bookstore, which boasts one of the largest collections of collegiate apparel and merchandise in the nation, is bracing for a lucrative holiday shopping year. In addition to gift favorites – like Irish apparel for family and friends – the bookstore has also introduced many holiday-inspired items to their inventory.

On the bookstore’s Web site, online shoppers can peruse through a section of merchandise devoted entirely to holiday-themed items such as Notre Dame Advent calendars, ornaments, decorations and greeting cards.

The Web site itself is evidence of the bookstore’s desire to keep up with ano-ther recent trend in consumer spending – the increase in the popularity of online shopping.

A November Forrest Re-search Report found U.S. consumers will spend 20 percent more buying gifts online this season than they did at the same time last year.

Sullivan is not surprised by this trend, however.

“It is reasonable to expect a rise in Internet sales as the Internet becomes more accessible and consumers become more comfortable shopping online,” Sullivan said. “While the projected growth for 2004 is high, it falls well below 2003’s 31-percent increase.”