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Retail gurus assess upcoming holiday season

New York — Fashion Group International's (FGI) annual conference about the state of retail, titled "The Best of Times, The Worst of Times," featured five industry-watchers who presented widely disparate views about the 2002 holiday season, with opinions ranging from "the worst in a decade" to a predication of 5 percent sales growth.

Sponsored dually by slipcover manufacturer Sure Fit Inc. and International Flavors & Fragrances Inc., yesterday's conference featured Daniel Barry, managing director of Merrill Lynch; Walter Levy, managing director, retail trends & positioning, Kurt Salmon Associates; Robin Lewis, president of Robin Lewis Inc.; and Carl Steidtmann, chief economist for Deloitte Research.

Lewis, whose company specializes in strategic brand positioning for major corporations in the retail and related consumer products business, said, "The bad news is the best of times have come and gone. The good news is we are going to come back and recover to where we were prior to the bottom falling out."

Meanwhile, Levy believes many of the problems encountered today by the country's retailers are of their own making, and "retailers and their suppliers are out of touch with the marketplace of today," he said.

The performance gap continues to widen between department stores and mass merchants, said Levy, and a key reason may be the continued reliance of department stores upon fashion.

Addressing the upcoming holiday season, Barry estimates sales of general merchandise for the Christmas season will increase 3 percent — though not as bad as the last recession growth of 0.2 percent. "It's the smallest increase since the last recession and the smallest non-recession Christmas in 15 years."

Expressing a slightly more positive viewpoint, Steidtmann noted, "While the news may not necessarily be the best, it is certainly not the worst." In fact, he maintained that holiday sales would be relatively solid and continue through 2003.

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