LIANE HANSEN, host:
This WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
This weekend, store shelves are piled high with Halloween costumes, plastic pumpkins and candy corn. But right next to the goblins, you're likely to find Santa. Store managers are hoping to move shoppers straight from Halloween to the ho-ho-holidays.
Here to talk about the holiday retail outlook is NPR's senior business editor Marilyn Geewax.
Marilyn, it's good to see you again.
MARILYN GEEWAX: Hi, Liane. Nice to see you again.
HANSEN: Before we start talking about holiday shopping, what's the mood of most consumers right now?
GEEWAX: Well, we just got a new report this past week from a trade group that represents shopping centers, and they found that sales were brightening a little bit. Now when I say a little, I mean a really little bit. It was only up by a tenth of a percent. But yeah, that was the first rise since July of '08, and we'll take good news where we can find it.
But retailers know that this is still a tough economy. Their customers are willing to spend more on back to school clothes in September. But they're finding that in October when they do surveys, the National Retail Federation says they expect weak Halloween sales this month. Last year, Americans spent about $5.8 billion on Halloween. This year we're probably more like 4.7. So lots of people are planning to skip those costume parties this year.
HANSEN: So that's why there are so many Christmas decorations in the stores, because the retailers are just trying to skip over Halloween and get right to the holidays?
GEEWAX: That's exactly right. The retailers are really in a race to make it feel like December as soon as possible. They think they have to get a head start because they've got there big hurdles to get over.
For one thing, the unemployment rate is about 9.8 percent and last holiday season it was only about seven percent. Number two, paychecks are pinched. People are working shorter hours so they have less income. And number three, credit isn't easy to get like it used to be a few years ago.
The one way that retailers are fighting this credit crunch is by pushing layaway plans. Those are the plans where shoppers can pay off their purchases installments over a number of weeks. So you pick out what you want. The store holds the merchandise. And when the final payment is made, you can come in and pick up your gifts and not have to worry about any huge credit card payments in January.
Kmart, Burlington Coat Factory, a lot of other retailers are pushing this layaway idea. But the only way to make it work is to make sure that the holiday merchandise is in the store right now, so that have time to make those installments over a number of weeks.
HANSEN: What else are the retailers doing to get our attention?
GEEWAX: Well, this is kind of goodness, I guess. They're competing pretty hard on price. Nintendo, for example, the game manufacturer, they cut $50 from the price of those Wii consoles and they're already seeing good results. It seems to be stirring up interest for holiday sales.
Wal-Mart, they've been pushing this idea of $10 toys. So they've got a long list of things that you can come to into the store and get a $10 toy. And they're not junky things. They're things kids might want; so really popular Barbie dolls, the Transformer action figures.
And another strategy that's kind of interesting is more of these pop-up stores that you see only for holiday sales. When a company wants to open a store, it's expensive. You have to put in a long-term lease and hire permanent employees and all that.
But what they're trying to do this year is there's so much vacant commercial real estate, that you can just open a store that'll be there for a couple of weeks and disappear in January. So Toys R Us is really a leader in this. They're planning to open scores of these holiday stores.
HANSEN: Do you think all these strategies are going to work?
GEEWAX: Well, you know, retailers know that this is a weak economy. They know people are out of work. But we also know that Americans love to shop. And surveys are finding that there may be some pent up demand out there that people are getting a little bit tired of holding back.
So store managers are just figuring, look, if I can get the right merchandise at the right price in the right location, maybe this Christmas holiday season won't be a terrific, but it won't be as bad as we were fearing just a few months ago.
HANSEN: NPR's senior business editor Marilyn Geewax. Marilyn, thanks a lot.
GEEWAX: You're welcome, Liane.
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