Terrorist Attacks May Stun Shoppers
Sep. 13, 2001
Dawn Villella might postpone buying a $7,000 furnace. And Debra Graves won't be getting a pickup truck.
Lisa Scheidel won't invest more money in the stock market in the near future, while Jane Faggioli is putting off her plans to buy a home.
Stunned by Tuesday's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, many consumers already worried about layoffs and dwindling stock portfolios say they are now even less optimistic about the future. The images of the collapsing trade center and smoldering Pentagon might make them even more wary about spending and borrowing.
That means cutting back on discretionary spending on items like trendy pickup trucks and vacations. It means taking fewer risks like investing in stocks.
No one can yet assess what emotional toll the tragedy will have on Americans. But, as Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard Retail Trend Report, based in Montclair, N.J., put it, ``Consumers are freaked out.''
``Consumer confidence has been choppy, and this hasn't helped,'' he said.
Steady spending by consumers was one of the few supports the languishing economy had in recent months. But with Americans showing increasing signs of nervousness lately, a blow to their confidence from Tuesday's attacks could undermine chances for an economic recovery.
Indeed, Villella, a freelance photographer from Minneapolis, now wants to use the money earmarked for a new furnace as a safety net, ``in case we fall on hard times.''
Faggioli, currently renting a condo in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., now believes she won't be able to afford to buy a house, considering her worries about her own job security. Faggioli, a design director of an architectural firm, said her major client is Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co., a tenant at one of the World Trade towers. She expects her business to suffer.
``I've been trying to function. I was crying while driving to the supermarket,'' said Faggioli. Generally, she said, she's frightened by everything. She's even thinking twice about getting on a plane.
Scheidel, of Conklin, Mich., said fear about an unstable stock market ``is going to make everyone scared.''
``I want to keep what money I have,'' said the cashier, the mother of two small children.
Graves, of Phoenix, said while grocery shopping, ``I think we're in for a long road that will leave us somewhere between recession and depression. This has affected everything.''
Since the news broke, Americans have stayed close to their TV sets and out of department stores. The little shopping they've done has been for basics. Stores like Wal-Mart Stores Inc., however, reported a surge in sales of patriotic items like flags and ribbons.
While some mall operators like The Taubman Centers, which owns 27 malls in 12 states, reported solid traffic Wednesday, others like Mall of America, the nation's largest shopping center, had few visitors. Even its amusement park had just a few children riding on its merry-go-round.
Analysts and consultants believe fear generated by the attacks could have a negative impact on holiday spending.
``When people are frightened, they tend to take fewer risks. They tend to be more cautious, and won't want to interact in bigger crowds,'' said Robert Butterworth, a Los Angeles-based clinical psychologist that specializes in trauma.
``The Gulf War really froze people into place for four or five days,'' said Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, a trend research firm in Charleston, N.C., noting that consumer spending dropped by 40 percent over that period. ``But this is much more severe.''
He expects consumers to probably put off spending for at least two weeks, and after that, take fewer risks. In luxury items, he expects purchases to be delayed by at least a month.
Beemer added, ``Unless, consumers have to have it, I don't see any motivation for them to buy. Consumers are emotionally drained.''
The tricky challenge for merchants, already shaken by anemic sales and shaky consumer confidence levels, is to get Americans excited about shopping while not offending them.
Already, major retailers are seeing the need to postpone major marketing events. Toy retailer FAO Schwarz canceled its big 140th anniversary party on Wednesday at its flagship Manhattan store, which was to feature big-name designers and New York socialites.
And Lee Scott, the chief executive officer of Wal-Mart, told associates in a video-taped address to be even more friendly to their customers.
``We want our stores to be places of comfort. I think now you have to be even more understanding and kinder. You don't know who was touched by this tragedy,'' said Tom Williams, a company spokesman.