- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 3, 2001

More shoppers spent more money this holiday season in the District of Columbia compared to the like period last year, according to TeleCheck Services Inc.

An end-of-the-season surge in spending boosted retail sales in the District to 4.4 percent over holiday sales in 1999 well above the 3.1-percent increase in holiday spending on the national level, according to TeleCheck's Retail Index, which is based on checks written by consumers at 27,000 locations nationwide.

The percent increase is based on retail sales at the same stores where TeleCheck gathered information the previous year.

"There's no question there's more shoppers [in the District]," said Dr. William Ford, TeleCheck's senior economist. "And they spent a little more than they did last year."

Analysts attribute the push in retail sales during the holidays to an increased affluence in the District in recent years and improved shopping and entertainment venues.

The average check written between the day after Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve in 2000 was $123.71 $2.56 more than the average check written in 1999 during the same period, according to the retail index. There were 2.3 percent more checks written in the District during the holidays.

"There's new money being generated and staying in the District," said Charles W. McMillion, chief economist for MBG Information Center. "People are not going out to the suburbs to shop."

The 2000 holiday season was unsettling for many retailers, who had experienced sluggish sales compared to the shopping period in 1999. For instance, after the first 17 days of the season, sales increased only 2.1 percent in the District over the like period last year. On the national level, sales were up only 2.9 percent.

Retailers were banking on those last-minute shoppers to improve overall holiday sales during the 31-day season.

Maryland had a 3 percent increase in sales this season compared to the like period in 1999. Virginia had a 2.9 percent increase.

The District was among many cities, including Baltimore, that had sales increases above the 3.1 percent national average.

"More people with higher incomes are shopping in the District," Mr. McMillion said. "The housing marketing has been booming, there's an influx of professionals moving in … and job growth has been positive this year."

For example, 270,180 people worked in the District in November, compared to 263,217 people in January 2000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In January 1999, there were 256,470 employees in the District.

City officials could not be reached for comment.

TeleCheck collected information from the same 462 D.C. stores it did in 1999. It also analyzed the checks written in the same 469 Maryland locations and 512 retailers in Virginia as it did in 1999.

Stephen Fuller, professor of public policy at George Mason University, said TeleCheck's results may not provide an accurate picture of the District's holiday spending.

"The data gives an incomplete view of retail sales," Mr. Fuller said. "Most people don't use checks."

Residents in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, who are likely to have higher incomes, may have more access to credit and therefore use credit cards more than write checks, he said.

Checks account for about one-third of retail spending, according to TeleCheck, a subsidiary of Atlanta-based First Data Corp.

It's still too early to tell precisely how overall holiday spending panned out in 2000 for the District. Sales tax figures are reported quarterly and merchants just have begun tallying up sales receipts.

Kathy Arvis, marketing director and assistant property manager at the Shops at Georgetown, said the heavy traffic from the last weeks of the holiday season were slightly more compared to last year. Since Christmas fell on a Monday, there was one final weekend for shoppers just before Christmas.

But it's hard to figure out how much of the center's traffic translates into dollars spent because of the competition that lines M Street right outside its doors. The merchants at the Shops at Georgetown aren't required to turn in their December sales figures until Jan. 10.

"Every year we like to think it gets better," said Marcia Rosenthall, executive director of the Golden Triangle Business Improvement District, which consists of 38 blocks in Northwest from 16th to 21st streets and Pennsylvania Avenue and H Street up to Dupont Circle.

"In general, there's a better assortment of shops," she said. "People are realizing they don't have to leave the city to fulfill a wish list."

Mr. McMillion says he remembers when that wasn't the case a couple of years ago.

"A year ago, the District was coming out of a many-year slump," Mr. McMillion said. "It's done so well since [last year]. It still has a long way to go to catch up with the rest of the region."

Mayor Anthony A. Williams has already made future plans to improve the city. In November, he announced his "Downtown Action Agenda" that details new economic opportunities in the city, including the creation of 7,600 residential-housing units, 1 million square feet of retail and entertainment space, 1,500 new hotel rooms and 5 million square feet of office space.


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