mad anthony

Rants, politics, and thoughts on politics, technology, life,
and stuff from a generally politically conservative Baltimoron.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Mad Anthony's retail report...

Megan McCardle ponders if her observations of empty malls in upstate NY and Ohio proves her suspicions that a recession is on the way.

I'm not so sure. First of all, as several of her commenters point out, both upstate NY and Ohio are pretty economically depressed areas, so it's likely that sales would suck there even if the rest of the country is doing pretty well.

But I think there is a greater problem with the observations - the fact that they were made at malls. There have already been forecasts at the start of the Christmas season that department stores and malls would take a beating, and that the victors would be big-box discounters like Target and Wal-Mart - both because of their lower prices, and because customers could do all their shopping at one time, and save gas from driving around to different stores.

Last Saturday, I stopped at Target to pick up a few last-minute gift wrapping items - gift tags and tape. The store was crowded, people were buying tons of stuff, and the parking lot looked like one of those demolition derbies they show late at night on The Speed Channel.

And I wouldn't even say that the malls are empty. I live near the White Marsh Mall, and the last couple Saturdays when I've had to run errands - to the post office or the Giant grocery store near the mall - I've had to dodge rows of mall-related traffic. Granted, the White Marsh Mall isn't exactly high-end - it's anchor stores include Sears and JCPenny - but people were shopping somewhere.

As far as MadAnthony's own Christmas spending, I've probably spent less than in previous years, but that's due to my buying a house last year and thus having less ready cash, not because of the economy as a whole. And no, I don't have an adjustable or teaser-rate mortgage, so you can't blame the subprime crisis. I did the bulk of my shopping online at Amazon, Frys, and eBay, with what little brick and mortar shopping I did being done on a Monday afternoon after my door installation was done, so I didn't have too many crowds.

And deal shopper that I am, I didn't see the discounting that Megan talks about. I snagged a few good items online on Black Friday, and some other deals after that, but the big guys (Staples, Circuit City, Best Buy, Office Depot) didn't have any of the huge Black Friday deals or other great sales they have in the past.

And adding to the anecdotal evidence, the final Wii I sold on eBay went for $385 plus shipping. The fact that parents are willing to bid them up that much suggests there are still quite a few people with a pocket full of money that they are willing to spend.

Of course, watching people shop isn't really a great way to gauge sales. Besides not counting the people shopping online, it doesn't mean much as far as spending. I might not be getting as many gifts as previous years, or spending as much, but I'm still buying people SOMETHING, so I still have to go shopping. My guess is most people cut back on spending when times are tough, but still buy something, so they are still going to be spending time at the stores. Retailer's end-of-the-year figures are going to be the true gauge of how we are doing financially.

As far as if we are going into a recession, my thought - backed up with no actual evidence, and probably a bit of hope - is no. I think times are less than optimal, with the subprime meltdown (which I don't think is as big a deal as the media has played it out to be, but isn't helping people who need to buy, sell or refinance homes) and high oil prices. But while I think we are in a slowdown that might get slower, I don't think we are quite at the r-word level. And it's important to note that there has been an assload of economic growth in the last few years, especially in housing pre-07, so it's got to slow down at some point - but that doesn't mean we are f'ed, just that we aren't doing as well as we were before.


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