Searching for Striped Paint

“I don’t think that when you have 10 months of slowdown and a good Christmas season it’s time to rant and rave and hoot and holler.” — Chuck Goodman, president of Goodies from Goodman. Holiday sales at the Dallas-based food gifts mailer rose 4%, but total 2003 sales were flat with the previous year’s.

In the wake of the holiday shopping season, I’ve been hearing a lot more about the economic recovery. But this so-called recovery seems as elusive as striped paint.

Sure, unemployment in December was 5.7%, the lowest since October 2002. But that’s because 310,000 people have stopped looking for work, and the government’s unemployment data include only people seeking jobs. As Bill Cheney, chief economist at John Hancock Financial Services, said to the Associated Press, the job scene is “take your pick: ‘awful, sobering, pathetic’…The rate is going down, but it is going down for the wrong reasons. That doesn’t make you feel really good about the state of the jobs market.”

Meanwhile, figures released by the Federal Reserve in early January put U.S. consumer debt — excluding mortgages and home loans — at a record $1.99 trillion. And research provider estimates that 1.6 million Americans will have filed for personal bankruptcy in 2003, up 4% from 2.5 million in 2002.

Our holiday sales roundup (see cover) illustrates how tentative any recovery is. Yes, most of the catalogers we spoke did better than they had during holiday 2002 — but 2002 was one of the worst holiday seasons in recent memory.

The marketers that enjoyed the greatest boost were those catering to high-end consumers: Net holiday sales at luxury jeweler Tiffany & Co. rose 17%, at Neiman Marcus Group 11%.

At upscale department-store chain Saks Fifth Avenue, comparable-store holiday sales jumped more than 10%. But at parent company Saks’s other chains, which include the less hoity-toity Proffitt’s, Carson Pirie Scott, and Herberger’s, comp-store sales rose just 3.2%. And at discounter Kohl’s, comparable-store sales actually fell 2.5%. Call me impatient, but I don’t want to wait for the upper classes to feast at the recovery banquet first, and only then, in best trickle-down fashion, scramble after any crumbs they may have dropped.

If you’re one of the fortunate catalogers who enjoyed substantial growth during the past season, three cheers. You no doubt earned that growth thanks to smart circulation, merchandising, service, and marketing; I highly doubt that the overall economy can take too much of the credit.

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