ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
This is the time of year when you hear words like retail trends and forecasts and holiday spending. Analysts are trying to figure out how things will go this season. From member station WSHU, Charles Lane sent this report from sunny Long Island.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEELS LIKE CHRISTMAS")
CYNDI LAUPER: (Singing) Just like Christmas, it was just like...
CHARLES LANE, BYLINE: There's a Santa Claus and Christmas trees and menorahs. But oh, my goodness, it does not feel like the holidays out here at all - 62 degrees, the sun is shining. And the question economists are asking is, the lack of sleigh bells and eggnog - how will that affect retail sales this year?
MANNY DESPORTE: The place is mobbed.
LANE: What do you mean, mob? What do you see?
DESPORTE: You can't find a parking space. We rode around for 10 minutes.
LANE: Meet the Desporte family - Manny, Manny, Jr. and the grandson Anthony Carmine. Manny says the little guy here is the recipient of all their consumer love this year.
DESPORTE: He's the guy. He's the main man. It's all about him.
LANE: So the warm weather doesn't change anything about how much you're going to spend?
DESPORTE: No, not really.
LANE: They were on their way to an outlet mall in Deer Park, a suburb 50 miles east of Manhattan. Ever since gasoline prices tumbled and unemployment dropped this past fall, stores have been waiting for people like the Desportes to come in and do their holiday shopping. But initial sales reports seemed subdued, not exuberant. Chris Christopher is an economist with IHS Global Insight.
CHRIS CHRISTOPHER: Many retailers, for the most part, maybe overestimated what we call the pump-price dividend in terms of spilling over into other areas.
LANE: According to government reports, cheap gas this year should have given consumers an extra 700 bucks to spend.
CHRISTOPHER: But it hasn't had the effect of really increasing consumer spending all that much.
LANE: In late November, when weak Black Friday numbers came out, it caused concern. Some doomsday economists went so far as to declare the holiday season a disaster. But other economists say Americans may be just spreading out their holiday shopping over a longer period. Shawn DuBravac is an economist with the Consumer Technology Association.
SHAWN DUBRAVAC: We've seen what used to be, historically, a single day gravitate towards late Thursday night store openings and then gravitating even earlier into the week.
LANE: Instead of the infamous door buster sales with very limited quantity the day after Thanksgiving, stores are now offering larger inventory with less drastic discounts, so consumers just don't have that rushed feeling anymore. The effect is a broadening of the shopping season through November and December.
Gus Faucher is an economist at PNC Financial Services. He says even though Black Friday numbers weren't so big, he still expects many consumers to start spending their gas savings as chilly weather and Christmas draw closer and more people catch the spirit that Manny Desporte already has.
GUS FAUCHER: Consumers are feeling better about the way things are going. Things still aren't great, but they're definitely headed in the right direction.
LANE: When the cold weather hits, they will be buying mittens and boots. And, on the final weekend of December after Christmas Day, consumers will also be armed with gift cards. Consumer Technology Association's DuBravac says retailers will capitalize on that with post-Christmas bargains.
DUBRAVAC: Part of what they're trying to do is accelerate the redemption of those gift cards, and they're also trying to continue to leverage the momentum that exists around consumers and their willingness to spend.
LANE: Most economists figure that by the time it's all over, holiday sales will have gained a solid 3.5 percent. For NPR News, I'm Charles Lane.
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