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O.C. Retailers Have Best 1st Quarter in 5 Years : Spending: Taxable sales totaled $6.85 billion, up 5.6% from the first three months of 1994, preliminary figures show.

August 17, 1995|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite widespread fears of a collapsing consumer confidence in the wake of the county government's bankruptcy last December, Orange County retailers racked up their best first quarter in five years.

Consumers spent $6.85 billion on taxable retail sales in the first three months of 1995 to give the county's economy a much-needed boost and its retail establishments their best winter since the recession began in 1990, according to preliminary figures released this week by the State Board of Equalization.

"It's definitely very good news," said Cal State Fullerton economist Anil Puri. "Even though the numbers are moving up from the pretty low level they sunk to in the recession, it means that the economy is growing. And it is growth that was long overdue."

Concerns that consumers would zip their wallets because of the county's financial troubles were legitimate, Puri said, but it was the housing industry--whose sales aren't recorded in the retail statistics--that got hit.

For other consumer spending, including clothing, automobiles, home furnishings and home improvement supplies, "there was a lot of pent-up demand that built during the recession, and it had to be satisfied," Puri said. "That, and the fact that personal income dipped less in the recession than did personal spending, is what is fueling increased retail sales now."

The first-quarter increase of 5.6% in taxable sales receipts in Orange County over the first quarter in 1994 was the best performance in Southern California; in Los Angeles County, consumers spent just 3.3% more than in the same period of 1994 and San Diego consumers spent 2.7% more.

Among the state's large urban counties, only Alameda, with a 6.7% growth rate, and Santa Clara, with an 8.2% first-quarter increase, outdid Orange County.

Statewide, the preliminary taxable retail sales report shows stores, supermarkets and car lots rang up $67.38 billion in sales for the first quarter--a gain of 3.3% from a year earlier.

The preliminary figures from the Board of Equalization--which collects sales taxes--don't break down spending by category. But automobile sales historically is one of the largest categories, accounting for about 12% of the county's total taxable retail activity, and car sales in the first quarter "were pretty good," said Kevin Allen, director of the Orange County Motor Car Dealers Assn.

"Things didn't start out all that good, but they picked up considerably toward the end of the quarter and gave most dealers a better first quarter than in 1994 or 1993," he said. "And sales are still on a slight increase."

Puri, who heads the economics department at Cal State Fullerton, said he expects the county to end 1995 an a positive note, with "healthy growth" in most areas of the local economy.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Retail Sales Improve

First-quarter retail sales in Orange County increased nearly 6% compared to the same period last year. Sales, in billions:

1990 $6.57

1995 6.85

Source: California Franchise Tax Board

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