- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

A friend reports that when she entered a major department store in the District last week, “I could have thrown a rock in either direction and not hit a soul.” On her return trip a few days later, she was surprised to find a different “fa-la-la-la” scene.

“It even sounded like Christmas,” said the Maryland woman. The store was crowded, people were talking, carols were playing and the cash register was buzzing.

A Christmas conundrum?

Maybe the last-minute “guilties” and give-aways will rescue some retailers this holiday season after all. Maybe not.

True, there are better things to do with limited and dwindling funds than spend them on gifts and gadgets that will be forgotten before the high-interest credit card bills are due.

And what do you say to that forgetful someone, a little stretched for cash, who has “re-gifted” a present you gave them last year? Thank you?

But what about the consumer-driven economy? We don’t want to commercialize Christmas, but we don’t want people to lose their jobs for lack of spending, either.

Every year my friend protests and vows not to succumb to the holiday pressure to buy pricey presents for her extended family. Me, too.

As usual, I try to discourage the spendthrift Christmas trend, and suggest that folks can make one another gifts or spend a small amount if they want to.

What I really want is more time to spend on family get-togethers and on activities that honor the “peace on earth” season.

Every year, however, my friend and I find ourselves relenting. Eventually, we get caught up in the holiday hype.

This year I may actually get my Christmas wish.

No surprise that the latest economic reports indicate that holiday shopping is at a near all-time low due to the recession. Even online shopping dropped at least a percentage point during this dismal year for merchants who are practically throwing their products and wares out the door at consumers.

Some retailers have even taken the drastic step of remaining open 24/7 until Christmas Eve, hoping to lure those folks who are either savvy enough to wait for historic sales or, like yours truly, are habitual eleventh-hour holiday shoppers.

At least that’s a welcome situation for folks, like a cousin, fortunate enough to get a seasonal job this wicked winter.

Despite all the predictable bad news, not all is lost. Some people are still spending and giving to the less fortunate.

Lorraine Duvalier, who has been a part-time sales associate for a high-end Chicago department store for the past seven years, said, “If there is a recession, I don’t know where that is.”

Working in men’s accessories and novelties such as shirts, ties, wallets and “things of that nature,” Mrs. Duvalier is averaging $1,000 to $1,500 in sales per night.

“We’re still very busy; I still have people buying high-end items,” she said. For example, a woman bought her husband a $600 Tumi overnight bag, and “she didn’t bat an eye.”

Mrs. Duvalier noted that they usually don’t have as many customers as she’s seen until after Christmas, when the store has an annual sale. The sales staff is about the same, too. Four other sales associates work in her area.

When they have a sale? Yes. Mrs. Duvalier said, “We don’t do a lot of reduced sales; we’re not that type of store.”

However, she has been taking advantage of sales at stores where they are “enticing customers to come in.” At another Chicago retailer, offering “yellow dot” sales and additional 50 percent to 75 percent off those prices, she found an Anne Klein sweater for $20. It normally sells for $200.

Hey, I bought a $20 table-top Christmas tree for my son for $4.99 in the Rite Aid’s “75 percent off” bin. Those collectible ornaments I traditionally place even in my adult children’s stockings, however, were not reduced a dime.

While consumers search for bargains, if they can spend on holiday gifts at all, we can hope that we’ve learned the valuable lesson of living within our means. Discovering that we can make do with a lot less is the underlying blessing of this recession.

Americans, while worried about the economy and their employment, are weathering these tough times. It is a hopeful sign that they haven’t given up as evidenced by the helpful spirit of the season.

Meanwhile, “cha-ching” is the “fa-la-la-la” sound retailers and their employees need to hear this holiday season.

So, we find ourselves in a Christmas conundrum. Happy Holiday all the same.

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