Stronger Holiday Sales Forecast

Cautious optimism and fewer early mark-downs anticipated

Lulu Suchinda already has her clothing store's holiday preparations wrapped up; now she just hopes she doesn't get a lump of coal in the form of bad economic reports on the evening news.

"When I hear (bad reports) I always think, ‘Oh, great,' because it affects everybody," said Suchinda, who owns Lulu's Boutique in Battle Ground. She still watches local and national news broadcasts to try to gauge how the economy will shape her customers' habits.
Though to most September means the arrival of fall or another school year beginning, for retailers it often means the holiday planning and preparations are nearly complete.

"By the time Christmas rolls around, we've been having Christmas for months," said Mary Sisson, who owns Kazoodles, a toy store with two Vancouver locations.

Retailers like Suchinda and Sisson have already placed their holiday orders, and they are cautiously optimistic. Statewide, retailers predict a better holiday season than last year. Locally, retail sales may be dampened by unemployment.

"I am a little nervous, but I am hopeful," Suchinda said. "I have been very conservative in my buying. I can always add some last-minute items in case I need it to do some fill-ins for the inventory. I don't want to overbuy."

Last year Lulu's Boutique did well for a new business during the holidays, Suchinda said. Her property manager at Battle Ground Village even put on an event that drew customers to her store and neighboring businesses. This year Suchinda says she's planning her own event in December to draw in customers.

Jan Teague, president and CEO of the Washington Retailer's Association, says she doesn't expect any shortages of must-have gifts this holiday season, but she warns consumers not to expect deep discounts. Retailers have already lowered prices just to accommodate the realities of the recession. Teague did suggest as shoppers try to stretch their dollars, discount retailers could benefit.

Teague also said retailers' success will depend on regional unemployment figures, which are higher in Clark County than elsewhere in the state. Newly released data from the Washington State Employment Security Department shows unemploy-ment in the county reached 

13.1 percent in August.

"I don't expect to see much, if any, improvement in the labor market between now and December in Clark County," said Scott Bailey, Washington State Employment Security Department regional economist for Southwest Washington. Meanwhile, unemployment benefits are starting to run out, and that could force shoppers to try to stretch their dollars.

"Competition among the retailers will create great Christmas bargains, but the mark-down signs will not be out early," Teague said. "During the holiday shopping seasons of the 1990s, consumers enjoyed mark-down choices. That may be a thing of the past with mark downs not so robust or plentiful."

Even if they're more cautious, area retailers are putting on a brave face for the holidays.

"From the mall perspective, we are looking forward to a great holiday season and will have many stores and amenities for our customers to enjoy during the festive season," said Jessica Curtis, director of marketing for Westfield Vancouver.

Teague also said specialty retailers will have an edge this year as shoppers look for unique Christmas gifts for friends and family.
That expectation might bode well for Sisson. The toy purveyor just started getting shipments she ordered during a gift show in Seattle in August. "All kinds of boxes are still arriving," she said. A member of the American Specialty Toy Retail Association, Kazoodles emphasizes toys that enhance children's developmental needs and those meant to last with children as they grow up.

In previous years, as much as 49 percent of Kazoodles' sales have come in the fourth quarter, and Sisson said she's optimistic about this coming holiday season. When it comes to kids, after all, nobody wants to be the Grinch.

"We've found that even if people postpone their buying, they don't want kids to think that Santa is not here," Sisson said. "They'll give up on gifts for adults before they give up on gifts for kids."

Still, this year brings new questions because Sisson now runs two stores.

"Some of our regular customers have started shopping at the new store," she said. "How it's all going to balance out in the new quarter is a guess, but it's an educated guess."

She won't have an answer until Christmas Eve.

"Last year I remember feeling kind of panicked in October, but things picked up and it ended up being a good fourth quarter, but there was a little nervousness there for a bit," she said.

Sisson said Kazoodles and other independent toy stores in the ASTRA organization will celebrate a "Neighborhood Toy Store Day" on Nov. 13 to try to encourage more shoppers to buy those gifts from retailers rooted in their local economy. Sisson and her colleagues also focus on services such as gift-wrapping and specialized guidance to help customers pick out the right toy.

"We're working hard, too, to bring people into our stores," Sisson said.