- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 21, 1999

The urge to spend money this Christmas was just too strong for some seasonal workers at Pentagon City mall.
With just five days to go until Christmas Day, about 20 of the 65 part-time workers hired this fall at Crate and Barrel have quit so they can go spend their earnings on presents.
“We over-hired expecting that many would fall off as Christmas got closer, but it happened a little more than usual this year, and the rest of us are now working overtime,” said store manager Don Nelson.
But his staffing problems are overshadowed by the success of the season overall. With the economy running strong and unemployment at a 29-year low of 4.1 percent, consumers are eager to spend.
“This is the best year we have ever had,” said Mr. Nelson, who has worked at Crate and Barrel, a home-and-kitchen store, for nine years.
While it is too early to tally up the sales for 1999, retail analysts are standing by their predictions that this will be one of the strongest shopping seasons of the decade.
Many mall retailers have been keeping an anxious eye on foot traffic, concerned that the surging popularity of on-line shopping would cut business. Most on-line retailers believe their sales will either meet or exceed their bullish predictions for the year.
A new survey released yesterday by market research firm International Data Corp. found that 55 percent of World Wide Web retailers said sales were in line with their holiday forecasts, and 29 percent had sales that topped their expected gains. Just 16 percent said sales are falling short of their own expectations.
But these final few days of the season will belong to brick-and-mortar stores, since by now few on-line retailers will guarantee delivery in time for Christmas.
“It’s all playing out very well,” said Scott Krugman, spokesman for the National Retail Federation. “This is a great economy, consumer spending and consumer confidence have remained strong throughout the holiday season.”
“Consumers have been spending all year, but it looks like they have saved the best for last,” said Mr. Krugman. He expects national retail sales will be 6.5 percent higher than last year.
With the economy running so strong, the only major worry for retailers this season has been finding enough people willing to work temporary part-time jobs for low wages.
In some stores at Pentagon City, like Bath & Body Works, eager part-timers greeted browsing customers yesterday afternoon with a smile and an offer to help. Other stores, including Eddie Bauer, were clearly short on help. Shoppers at the clothing store anxiously searched for an employee to ring up a sale.
“We can’t restock our shelves fast enough, and we are definitely short staffed,” said Catherine Schultz, manager of the Museum Company.
Another problem, she said, is training the temporary workers on all of the ins and outs of retail, from making sales to stocking shelves and keeping customers happy.
While foot traffic at Pentagon City Mall was brisk, the parking lot traffic was chaotic and bumper to bumper. The mall dispatched several workers to help direct traffic and keep Christmas spirit from turning into road rage.
The holiday rush was much less hectic down the road at Landmark Shopping Center, where parking was a cinch and lines were scarce.
“It’s a little slower because it’s a Monday afternoon,” said Rodney Renner, general manager of General Growth Properties, which operates Landmark.
He said the weekend was very strong, and that on Saturday the parking lot was virtually full. The last weekend before Christmas traditionally ranks as the busiest two days of the year for retailers. Yesterday afternoon, however, business throughout the mall was slower, and the only really long line was to sit on Santa’s lap.
“Talking to some of the merchants, most had favorable things to say, others were discouraged about sales so far,” Mr. Renner said.
He didn’t think on-line shopping was hurting traffic at Landmark. But General Properties, which operates 130 shopping centers, definitely sees the Internet as a potential threat.
“We just launched our own Web site, Mallibu.com, which will tie in all the retailers at our shopping malls and hopefully bring people back to bricks and mortar,” Mr. Renner added.
Hoping to capitalize on these final few shopping days, retailers are using both print and electronic mail to deliver last-minute reminders about sales, said Lisa Allen, senior analyst at Forrester Research.
“E-mail is an effective way [of advertising],” Miss Allen said. “It’s also a quick and cheap approach to highlighting available merchandise.”
Amazon.com is expecting an increase in gift-certificate sales this week. Although tomorrow is the last possible day to place an order in time for Saturday, shoppers can purchase e-mail gift certificates as late as Christmas morning if they want to, said Bill Curry, spokesman for Amazon.com.
Shoppers can send an Amazon.com gift certificate through e-mail and avoid all shipping delays. “As the week draws to an end, procrastinators who will contemplate going to a mall, will turn to e-mail gift certificates,” Mr. Curry said.

Donna De Marco contributed to this report.

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