Is It Too Soon To Worry About Holiday Retail Sales?

fromNOPR

The calendar says October, but retailers and economists are already analyzing the holiday shopping season. With budget battles gripping Washington and an economy that's still recovering, there are mixed feelings about how far shoppers will open their wallets.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

So I was cleaning out a storage locker yesterday and ended up taking out a bunch of Christmas ornaments, which put me in the same frame of mind as the nation's retailers and economists - who are already, in October, thinking about the holiday shopping season.

With budget battles gripping Washington and an economy that's still recovering, there are mixed feelings about what this season offers. Mike Moen, of member station WNIJ, reports.

MIKE MOEN, BYLINE: The Christmas shopping season may be on the minds of many people, but the holiday popping up right in front of them sounds more like this.

RECORDED VOICE: Look into my eyes, and I shall look into your soul.

MOEN: That greeting is courtesy of a skeleton with angel's wings. It's part of a yard display in a Spirit Halloween store, one of the many temporary costume shops that pop up this time of year across the country. Renea Jacobs manages the location here in DeKalb, Ill., a town just outside of Chicago. This stay-at-home mom wants to re-enter the workforce in a nursing job. But for now, she's knee-deep in costumes and scary decorations.

Once this job ends, she'll keep looking for openings in health care. But she's not ruling out another short-term retail gig. And with stores getting a jump on their displays and aggressively promoting layaways, Jacobs guesses there will be plenty of competition for part time work.

RENEA JACOBS: With so many people that are trying to get into it, often, it's hard to get your foot in the door.

MOEN: Just down the road, job seekers might find luck at Blain's Farm and Fleet, a retail chain with locations across the upper-Midwest. Local manager Dave Pasch says they plan to hire more temporary workers this holiday season than they did last year.

DAVE PASCH: Customers are starting to spend more. They're starting to spend more, I think, as far as things back in their home and stuff, more home improvement. We're starting to see that a little bit again.

MOEN: Some of that increased hiring is also being seen at the national level. Economist Bernard Baumohl says this year, holiday sales are expected to increase by 4-and-a-half percent. That's viewed as a modest increase. But it appears to be good enough for a handful of major chains.

BERNARD BAUMOHL: We're getting word from Wal-Mart, Macy's. A number of stores have indicated that they are ramping up hiring, and that the number of people that they're bringing on for the holiday shopping season is going to be even greater this year than it was in at 2012.

MOEN: But not all of them are making serious additions to the payroll. Department stores Kohl's and Target say they will hire fewer seasonal workers this year. Target says it plans to instead give those extra hours to permanent staff members. Meanwhile, with more people shopping online, tech companies like Amazon are boosting hiring.

And whether or not storeowners and their customers feel good about the economy right now, the partial government shutdown and looming debt crisis hang over the season much like the character Grinch. Bernard Baumohl says a prolonged stalemate could dampen spirits. But he says a quick end to the budget fight shouldn't have a lasting effect.

BAUMOHL: I think that the impact will be minimal, and that we should still see a very strong holiday shopping season.

MOEN: And it's not just staffing decisions retailers and shop owners are considering ahead of the Christmas crunch. The calendar is forcing them to get creative with hours. Thanksgiving falls on the very last week of November, pushing back Black Friday deals.

Boutique owner Joyce Waters says she'll be staying open later when she can. Waters doesn't want to miss out on what she calls a customer base that's willing to spend.

JOYCE WATERS: People are shopping, and they're shopping local.

MOEN: And once people have had their fills of ghosts and goblins, retailers will be pushing sounds like this...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WINTER WONDERLAND")

MOEN: ...if they haven't already.

For NPR news, I'm Mike Moen, in DeKalb, Illinois.

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