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And the survey says...

Heath E. Combs, Jennifer Negley -- Home Textiles Today, December 4, 2000

Forget about predicting who really won the presidential election. Try coming up with an accurate forecast for this year's holiday selling season.

Most years, the various analysts, indexes, research firms and prognosticating trade organizations reach more or less the same conclusion about how the December sales period will play out. Their predictions vary by a percentage point or two, but generally they're peering at the same Rorschach arrangement of tea leaves and divining a common scenario.

Not this year. This year the predictions are clunking against one another; and rather than singing with one voice, the soothsayers are shouting over each other in a baffling cacophony. It makes all that vote-counting business in Florida look rather well organized.

For starters, we had the International Mass Retail Association (IMRA) actually predicting a slight decline in holiday spending. Considering that the surveying skews toward folks who traditionally do a lot of shopping in discount stores anyway, the call for a 1 percent decline in spending was a bit of a cold shower. Conventional wisdom has long held that when the economy cools, spending shifts to the mass market.

On the heels of IMRA's sobering forecast, the American Express Retail Index produced a rosy research report that prognosticated consumers upping their spending by 8 percent. Given the fact that consumer spending took a fairly healthy 9 percent up-tick last year when the economy was still giddily zipping along, the likelihood of another 8 percent hike is fairly hard to believe.

Even more astonishing, most of the folks in the AMEX survey-72 percent-said they will be shopping in department stores. Don't they know that last year was the first year in a decade during which holiday sales in the department store sector actually increased-and that department stores barely eked that one out?

First Union also forecast fairly robust sales growth of 7 percent after parsing consumer confidence figures and-what else-other holiday surveys.

And indeed, the early reports of the season kick-off last week were generally positive.

But last week also produced a report from the Consumer Federation of America and the Credit Union National Association which found that a quarter of consumers plan to cut back on spending because they're worried about their personal debt load.

There is no more unity to be found among the Internet retail sages.

According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, a quarterly consumer report conducted by the University of Michigan Business School, consumers are more satisfied making retail purchases online than they are making purchases in department and discount stores.

But just one day earlier, a Fiderus/Yankelovich survey warned that Internet users' concerns about privacy and security threaten to dampen holiday sales, and further cautioned that such ongoing concerns could cut global e-commerce revenues by $1 trillion over the next three years.

On the other hand, Forrester Research sees online holiday sales in the United States reaching $10 billion this year.

It's enough to sour a trend-watcher on surveys all together.

All I know is this: On the Saturday after Thanksgiving I went to a medium-sized, outdoor pedestrian mall in Philadelphia. The public parking areas were packed, the sidewalks were jammed and the stores were all busy.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that they remain that way.

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