Saunders: Hard times, or tough news, could cause shopping woes

February 24, 2013 

Were we brokenhearted – or just broke?

Now that all of the figures are finally in, it’s official: Christmas sales this past season for many businesses ranged from “dismal” to “lackluster.”

Some economists and retailers blamed the then-looming “fiscal cliff” crisis – yep, one of those was looming two months ago, too – and the murkiness of its impact on our pocketbooks.

Others blame the unseasonably warm weather in parts of the country – the theory being that getting into the Christmas shopping spirit is harder when you’re wearing Bermuda shorts and flip-flops and frolicking on the beach in bright sunshine.

“Bright sunshine” my eye. I blame a chill, dark cloud hanging over the country after two disasters struck just as the nation geared up for Christmas. First, Superstorm Sandy hit in October, the official beginning of the holiday shopping season, devastating hundreds of thousands of people, destroying their homes and wrecking their lives. We were disheartened not only because of what those unfortunate people went through, but also because of our government’s unwillingness to help them.

As if that double blow to the nation’s psyche wasn’t bad enough, 11 days before Christmas, evil descended upon a Newtown, Conn., elementary school and took 26 innocent lives.

Who feels like shopping after that?

When I called Professor Lee Craig and asked if I were really onto something or just, as a Chicago economist intimated, full of beans for seeking a correlation between low spirits and low sales, he replied “When you ask an economist a question like that, we say, ‘I have to look into it.’ ”

And then he did. Craig, head of the Department of Economics at N.C. State University, looked into it and noted that even from 2008 through 2011, during the heart of the Great Recession, U.S. retail sales in December rose 5.9 percent and during the holiday shopping season – Oct. 28 through Dec. 24 – they rose almost 4 percent annually.

For 2012, though, after the national and natural disasters, holiday sales rose only 0.7, he said.

Pretty puny, considering that, for the first time, many stores opened on Thanksgiving Day.

Craig stated that the two areas hit hardest by Sandy – the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions – saw sales declines of 1.4 percent and 3.9 percent, respectively. Had those areas seen the same increase as the rest of the nation, he said, it would have accounted for $15 billion more in sales, or 5.2 percent.

Because the storm ravaged a geographical area with a “very concentrated population,” he said, quantifying its financial impact is easier. Much harder to measure was the impact Newtown had on our hearts and desire to shop. Because that storm hit us all.

Whatever the condition of our psyches, it was still hard to find a parking spot at the mall – probably because most people wanted to avert the smaller tragedies that occur when you don’t buy gifts.

There is also a chance, one coworker pointed out, that some people did as she did – spent more money precisely because of the tragedies. She said she has several young nieces and nephews and not only did they not grasp the nature of what the country was going through, but that she was also feeling extra-close to them after the Newtown massacre.

Hmm. So, brokenhearted or broke – which were you?

Let me know.

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