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Christmas spreads gloom to retailers ’round the globe

December 22, 1997

LONDON (AP) _ The Christmas shopping season looks grim for many of the big European retailers, while the economic crunch in Asia has stopped holiday cash registers from ringing much at all.

As always, stores and streets are full of colorful displays and herds of shoppers are prowling the sidewalks and malls, but the fortunes of merchants vary as sharply as the world’s economies.

``If you’ve got the money, spend it. If you haven’t, don’t go in the shops,″ said Eric Stayman, a retiree from Durham, England, who had traveled south to spend the day browsing along London’s Oxford Street.

His wife, Doreen, said she might spend a little more on some presents this year _ thanks to higher prices.

``They’re a bit heavier this year than they were last year,″ Mrs. Stayman said. ``Things keep going up.″

But most Britons are spending less overall.

The Bank of England played the role of the Grinch this year, with interest rates up by 1.25 points since May as officials try to stop the economy from overheating. The goal was to slow consumer spending. Distressed retailers said it’s working.

``Consumer confidence has been damaged by the interest rate rises,″ said Ann Grain, spokeswoman for the British Retail Consortium. ``People are not spending much money.″

British merchants were hoping to regain some lost ground during the final run-up to Christmas, like their counterparts in the United States who also got off to a slow start. Some British retailers sought to salvage the season by starting sales early _ a tactic they usually employ only in a recession.

Still, Britons pushing their way through the holiday crowds said they were spending plenty, due to the buoyant economy that has the central bank worried about inflation.

``Things are looking better _ you put your hand in your pocket,″ said Victor Horne, who came to London from Somerset to spend a few days admiring the bright Christmas lights and shopping.

In Germany, the top retail market in Europe, merchants are wrapping up a disastrous year. Business is off by about 1.3 percent.

``Christmas sales up to now are disappointing,″ said Thomas Werz, spokesman for the Primary Association of German Retailers.

Italian consumers were staying cautious, French merchants were reporting mixed results, and Spanish stores were launching sales early to try to drum up more business.

But all was not gloomy.

Dutch retailers said a steady-growth economy would likely hand them a jolly Christmas, after they enjoyed good business on their traditional gift-giving holiday, Sinterklaas, or St. Nicholas’s Eve, on Dec. 5.

``We saw people spending more money on gifts than before and we think and expect that trend will continue for Christmas,″ said Peter van Bakkum at the big Dutch retailer Vendex.

Some big Swiss merchants also said business was looking up from last year.

Although Christmas has much less of a tradition in Asia, many countries there have gotten into the spirit with decorations, parties and _ of course _ shopping.

That was before the currency crisis struck southeast Asian economies and Japan was startled by some high-profile business failures.

South Koreans often go caroling in the streets around Christmastime, but this year things were quiet as their economy was particularly hard hit. Big retailers say sales have fallen by about 20 percent over the past month.

``People seem to worry more about necessities and think this is a bad time to spend money on gifts,″ said Chang Hae-jin, spokeswoman at the Shinsegye Department Store in Seoul.

The same quiet troubled retailers elsewhere in Asia.

``It’s mid-December, but not many people are looking for presents,″ said Tachakorn Kovadhana, owner of the Treats giftshop on Silom Road, a busy Bangkok retail area. ``My shop is usually visited by a large number of customers, at least 80 to 100 a day, but lately the maximum number has been about 40.″

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