- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 30, 2002

Retail business is bouncing back locally, just in time for the holidays, despite the weak economy, terrorism fears and recent anxiety about the sniper attacks in the Washington area.
"We've noticed a significant increase in traffic at Bowie Town Center," said Melissa Gott, regional marketing director at Simon Property Group, which owns the shopping center. Business dropped off the week after a 13-year-old boy was shot Oct. 7 outside Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie, she said.
Business is improving at Karibu Books in the 1-year-old Bowie Town Center, said store manager Linda Ellis. The store was particularly busy during the weekend, after the sniper suspects had been arrested, she said.
Sales for Halloween, a precursor to the all-important holiday season, also have increased during the past week.
At Fantasy, a costume shop in Fredericksburg, Va., sales and traffic have picked up since the arrests, but business is still down compared with a year ago, said owner Bonnie Seay.
"With the sniper event going on, people were not bringing their children out for costumes. Now they are," she said.
Bank One Corp., in its annual national forecast of holiday spending, predicts that sales will increase 4.6 percent this year compared with last season. The National Retail Federation, an industry trade group, expects holiday sales to be 4 percent higher than last year.
The upbeat retail prediction comes amid a dour report on consumer confidence released yesterday. The Consumer Confidence Index, a measure of consumer sentiment regarding the economy, dropped to 79.4 in October its lowest point since 1993 from 93.7 in September, according to the Conference Board, a private research group.
But the Consumer Confidence Index is a "poor indicator" of what people really are planning to spend, said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Bank One Corp.
"It's going to be an OK Christmas," Ms. Swonk said. "It's not going to be a spectacular Christmas, but one that will exceed retailers' expectations."
Retailers are hoping for a 2 percent or 3 percent gain as they start offering heavy discounts early this season to draw in consumers but keep a tight inventory to minimize any loss after the season.
Ms. Swonk expects this season's holiday buying to shift to deep-discounted computers and traditional gifts, such as winter apparel.
"It will be a better environment for traditional holiday retailers," Ms. Swonk said.
Last year, the emphasis was on home and family, which translated into big sales for home entertainment and furnishings. Car dealers offering zero-percent financing resulted in a spike in car sales that will go unmatched this year, she said.
The pent-up demand for winter apparel, due to an unseasonably warm winter last year, will drive sales of products like sweaters, coats, hats and gloves.
The holiday shopping season, typically beginning the day after Thanksgiving, consists of just 21 shopping days this year.
Ms. Swonk said the short shopping cycle won't have much of an effect on overall sales because so many consumers wait until the last minute to do their shopping.
The Saturday before Christmas has been the busiest shopping day of the season for at least the past five years. Now more consumers are waiting to shop until after Christmas to take advantage of bigger markdowns.
"The week after Christmas has really become a make-or-break period for retailers," Ms. Swonk said.

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