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Christmas Is Coming, Malls Are Packed And Consumers Are Buying Graphic

November 23, 1992

WAYNE, N.J. (AP) _ It was slow going for shoppers at the Willowbrook Mall one recent Sunday. Finding a parking space seemed to take forever. Hallways and stores were packed and lines for the cash machine long.

Sheer misery for those in a rush or who hate crowds.

But for retailers, it was the sweetest sight their sore eyes had seen in some time. They knew that if the bustle was any sign of what’s to come, the Christmas shopping season, which has its unofficial start Friday, would turn out well.

″It does indicate we should be in for a successful season,″ said Gary Yanosick, marketing manager at Willowbrook, located in the New York City suburb of Wayne.

For many retailers across the country, a good Christmas would be a marked change after three straight disappointing holiday seasons. There are some encouraging signs this year - overall business has gradually improved since January, and the release of stronger October sales figures brightened expectations for the season.

But the outlook remains cautious. While Willowbrook and other malls in the New York area have been busy, not all retailers elsewhere have shared in that good fortune.

″Sales have been slightly sluggish since the election,″ said Steve Marotta, an analyst at Johnson Redbook Service, which analyzes retail sales on a weekly basis. He said overall sales have been down so far in November from October levels.

Nonetheless, Marotta predicted a good Christmas, with sales rising between 8 percent and 9 percent.

Janet Mangano, an analyst with Burnham Securities Inc., described business as ″spotty by region, spotty by retailer,″ although overall, consumer traffic is up at the big malls and smaller neighborhood shopping centers. She said the season might produce the same kind of erratic pattern.

But Jeffrey Feiner of Merrill Lynch & Co. said he was somewhat more optimistic, based on retailers’ results the past few weeks.

Yanosick sounded a little surprised by the turnout at Willowbrook. ″It’s a little bit unusual ... compared to the past two years, we’ve found the past two weeks to be excessively heavy.″

Some industry analysts and economists had predicted that consumers, who have spent gingerly during the recession and weak recovery, would feel better about shopping now that the uncertainty of the presidential campaign was over.

That appeared to be the case at Willowbrook. ″The last two weekends, we’ve seen a real increase, not only in traffic, but merchants report their business has been increasing,″ Yanosick said.

Retailers and analysts will be watching the first weekend of the season closely for clues about consumers’ willingness to spend.

″The best read (on the season) is going to be the day after Thanksgiving, how consumers respond to merchandise which is not really on sale,″ Feiner said. ″Mall traffic should be a good indicator.″

Catalog retailers also are preparing for the busiest part of their year. Express delivery now makes it possible for consumers to order gifts two days before Christmas, but most catalog shoppers will place their orders by the first week of December.

The most hectic day at L.L. Bean Inc. is the Monday after Thanksgiving. Spokeswoman Catharine Hartnett said the company expects to receive 100,000 calls that day.

Bean’s sales have been improving steadily in 1992. ″We continue to run roughly 10- or more percent ahead of where we were last year,″ Ms. Hartnett said. ″If things continue to go as we think, we should have a very successful season.″

Retailers’ expectations for the season are generally modest. Many will be pleased to meet or slightly exceed their sales estimates.

Dayton Hudson Corp. chairman Kenneth A. Macke has predicted in interviews with reporters that the season will be a ″nail-biter″ as shoppers, following their habit of the past few Christmases, leave their shopping until the last minute.

Even if the season isn’t robust, many storeowners are probably in their best financial shape in years. They have learned to keep inventories tight and cut expenses to preserve their profits when business is weak.

End Adv Monday, Nov. 23

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