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Caution tops the Christmas list

In time of uncertainty, shoppers play it safe

Shoppers look over the merchandise at Kohl’s department store in Wilkes-Barre Township. Fearing economic weakness, retailers have tried for an earlier start to holiday shopping this year.


Holding clothes his wife Sharon picked out, Rich Ostopowicz headed to find her among the aisles of the Kohl’s store in Wilkes-Barre Township.

The couple from West Nanticoke qualifies for senior citizens discounts at the store and the 15 percent mid-week reduction helps stretch the household budget, especially now that they are retired. Besides buying for themselves, a son and his expecting wife are on their holiday shopping list. This season, though, they try to be careful with their spending, Rich Ostopowicz said.

“Money’s a little tighter this year,” he said.

Abysmal news about the nation’s economy has retailers anticipating a slight increase in sales from last year and to make their goals they’ve started discounting merchandise early for shoppers like the Ostopowiczes.

Department stores and specialty retailers have been advertising in advance of the traditional Black Friday opening day, said Ellen Davis, vice president with National Retail Foundation, an industry trade group in Washington D.C.

“This year, consumers are on a budget and they mean it,” Davis said during a teleconference last week about the shopping season.

Adult shoppers surveyed by the federation plan to spend on average $832, up from $819 in 2007, and overall sales should grow by 2.2 percent to $470.40 billion, the lowest increase since the survey began in 2002.

Shoppers will be looking for bargains and will likely be trading down from more expensive items, said Pam Goodfellow, a senior analyst with BIGresearch, which conducted the federation’s survey.

“It’s going to be chic to be cheap,” said Goodfellow, who joined Davis on the teleconference.

Gasoline prices have plummeted from earlier this year. But that extra money from lower prices isn’t all ending up in retailers’ cash registers. Shoppers plan to take fewer trips to the mall or department store, leaving retailers with fewer chances to engage them, Goodfellow said.

On top of the fear of gasoline rising, shoppers are skeptical about the economy and future employment, she said.

“We’re dealing with a changed consumer here,” she said.

Not all pull back

Stepping out of the children’s department, Mary Kurlandski clutched a pair of pants and Hannah Montana skirt for her daughter.

Kurlandski, of Swoyersville, said she hasn’t changed her spending habits this season. With nine children, she always looks for bargains and searched for American-made goods. She has bought presents as early as July and hidden them out of view from snooping children.

“Christmas only comes one time a year,” she said. “If you know how to budget you can make somebody a little bit happy.”

Customers are walking through the doors and looking for values and Kohl’s has been highlighting different items on the three weekends leading up to Black Friday, said store manager Cory Guynn.

Electronics, jewelry and holiday sweaters are among the items that are selling well so far. The store has plenty of inventory and business has been steady. “I have not seen a change in people’s purchasing habits,” Guynn said.

Despite the gloomy headlines about Wall Street, layoffs and home foreclosures the holiday season will still have its appeal.

“No one’s not going to shop for Christmas,” Guynn said.

The last place parents will cut back is on children’s gifts, added Rob Friedland, spokesman for Toys ‘R’ Us. “Christmas will come,” Friedland said.

Online growth slowing

At igourmet.com in West Pittston, half of the company’s sales are made in December during the holidays, said Spencer Chesman, company founder and chief executive officer of the internet purveyor of fine foods and specialty cheeses.

“In my opinion, there is a human need to send gifts,” Chesman said.

Online sales are expected to reach $44 billion this year, a 12 percent increase from last year, but the slowest growth rate to date, according to a report from Forrester Research.

In its “Outlook for U.S. Online Holiday Sales, 2008,” the research firm said return customers are driving the sales and shoppers are attracted by the free shipping, deals and amount of information offered on the Web.

Though not as dependent as igourmet.com is on the holidays, BabyAge.com still sees a pickup in purchases during the shopping season.

Toy sales are up at this time, said Joseph C. Sponholz, BabyAge.com’s chief operating officer.

But people are buying other products as well, though they might not be the most expensive ones.

“Where we see the change is in the products people buy,” said Sponholz.

People still need to buy car seats and they all meet government safety standards. But instead of the top of the line model, customers have a lower price point and choose a more economical model. It’s the difference between buying a Mercedes Benz and Ford, he said.


Holiday hiring expected to slow nationally, but there are jobs here.

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