- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Retailers can expect a jollier holiday season for 2003 than in recent years.

Sales in November and December are expected to grow 5.7 percent over last season, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF). Shoppers will spend $217.4 billion on clothes, toys, appliances, furniture and other general merchandise this year.

“Consumers have spent the last several years on an emotional and economic roller coaster,” said Tracy Mullin, NRF president and chief executive. “Now Americans appear to be ready to shop and ready to spend, just in time for the biggest shopping season of the year.”

Although Christmas is more than three months away, stores already are gearing up and have begun stocking shelves with red and green. It is a critical time for retailers since holiday sales can make or break a business.

Last year, holiday sales made up nearly 23 percent of total retail sales.

In 2002, with the war in Iraq looming and the economy still staggering, holiday sales rose just 2.2 percent over the previous year to $205.6 billion.

NRF Chief Economist Rosalind Wells said several factors are contributing to the trade group’s optimistic 2003 forecast, including low interest rates, low inflation and growing consumer confidence.

“After several strong months of retail sales growth, it seems clear that the economy is picking up momentum just in time for the holidays,” she said.

In addition, Ms. Wells says shoppers have more disposable income than they did last year as a result of the tax cuts and child-tax-rebate checks the government started sending in July.

Sales at stores open at least a year rose in August at the strongest pace in 14 months, helped by the tax-rebate checks.

“Retailers are going to do well in general,” said Hardy Bowen, who helps manage more than $11 billion at Arnhold & S. Bleichroeder Advisers, including shares of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer. “Markdowns are going to be less. Sales are going to be higher.”

This article is based in part on wire-service reports.

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