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Christmas' Role as Economic Key May Be Humbug

December 13, 1987|JONATHAN PETERSON | Times Staff Writer

Once upon a time, there was a story about Christmas, and it went something like this:

Every November, when millions of Americans had barely frozen their Thanksgiving leftovers, they would scramble into local shops and shell out full price for several stockings' worth of gifts. This consumer riot (at least in good years) encouraged merchants to order tons of stuff to refill their shelves. And these orders enabled factories to load up on employees and raw materials.

Thus, the U.S. economy, with a strong measure of Christmas cheer, would purr ahead for another year. So went the time-honored tale.

Only--at the risk of committing a holiday-season blasphemy--it is not entirely true. While it may sound Scrooge-like to say so, Christmas is overrated as a key to understanding the economy.

Normally, a strong Christmas season no more heralds a new year of prosperity than a lackluster season augurs hard times. "You might just as well flip a coin," said Ron Duritsch, a retail analyst with Management Horizons in Columbus, Ohio, who has looked for a connection between holiday buying and future economic growth. "Christmas is not good enough (statistically) to use as a reliable forecast."

Not that Christmas isn't important. A great many retailers, including purveyors of toys, clothing, jewelry, specialty items, consumer electronics and many other products, rely heavily on year-end business. Billions of dollars change hands. Strong or weak sales can make a huge difference to individual companies and send ripples through the whole economy. This year, the Christmas season has special significance because executives are anxious to gauge the aftereffects of October's stock market crash.

Consumers' willingness to keep spending is seen as crucial to avoid a recession, and the spirit they show in holiday shopping will be a valuable barometer of their attitude. In addition, Christmas remains an important symbol of the economy's vitality, one that affects a gamut of post-holiday spending decisions in ways that are hard to measure.

Nonetheless, the financial well-being of Americans is the result of many segments of the economy, including housing construction, business expansion and the global competitiveness of U.S. products, ranging from aircraft engines to zinc-coated steel. The behavior of consumers in November and December, while obviously significant, is just one of these factors.

"It normally wouldn't have this kind of importance," maintained James E. Newton, chief economist of Meretrends, another Columbus, Ohio, consulting firm. "If retailers expect to have a poor Christmas season, they plan for it, and the net effect the following year is nonexistent."

The way in which merchants now plan for it is one of the reasons that the Christmas season's importance is sometimes misunderstood. Simply, they have found a way to take some of the gamble out of the holiday season. The strategy: pre-Christmas sales.

With the exception of a few items used as bait, stores used to be extremely reluctant to put holiday goods on sale before Christmas. The rationale was simple. The bigger the markdown, the punier the profit. Unsold items were unloaded in frenetic sales--after the holiday.

A New Game

But now, when retailers worry about the mood of consumers, they do not wait to slash prices, as a stroll through any mall right now will illustrate. What this means is that shopkeepers limit the damage of a dismal season by continuing to sell their merchandise. It also means, however, that profits are pared.

In fact, the traditional view of Christmas as a time when people pay premium rates for goods is being replaced by a new game of chicken between consumers and retailers, with shoppers holding off purchases in the hope that prices will plummet at the last minute. As a result, some experts scold retail executives for these changes in selling strategies.

"From my point of view, it's really dumb," said Ben M. Enis, a marketing professor at USC's graduate business school. "Retailers put so much effort into marking things down that people don't really pay a lot of attention to the regular prices anymore. If something isn't on sale, people wait."

Typically, the products they are waiting for were ordered months earlier from manufacturers. In other words, the factories may have made their Christmas profits the previous summer, depending on their arrangements with the stores. "By the time you're into the heart of the Christmas season, the majority of our shipping to retailers has already taken place," said Loren H. Hildebrand, an executive vice president with Mattel Inc., the toy maker.

Christmas remains crucially important to the toy industry. Of last year's $12.5 billion in retail sales, 60% took place in the last few months of the year, according to the Toy Manufacturers of America. While that is dramatic proof of Christmas's enduring importance, it is a smaller share than it used to be. The holiday represented more than 70% of toy sales as recently as a decade ago.

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