Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Storm-interrupted blogging; Christmas in June

I had every intention of coming out here to put up a post or two right after dinner, but the thunderstorm that rolled through just then had other ideas. A few flickery power dims later, I turned off my computer; the girls and I sent up a card game which we all enjoyed very much, instead.

When I came back out here to write, I noticed that this post will by my 1,500th post since this blog began. Clearly, I can't shut up. :)

Among the many things I can't shut up about are interesting articles like this one:

Although profits were up at Wal-Mart, sales at its American stores fell by 1.4% compared with a year earlier. “More than ever, our customers are living pay cheque to pay cheque,” says Tom Schoewe, its chief financial officer. “I’m worried,” admits the boss of another large retail chain, privately. “Things seem a little rougher now than in the first quarter.” The effect of the government stimulus is running out and consumers’ finances remain stretched, he confides. The International Council of Shopping Centres, a trade group, recently trimmed its sales projections for May.

Everyone agrees that American consumers are more cheerful than they were last year. A new survey by Deloitte, a consultancy, found that nearly two-thirds of them say their financial situation is as good as or better than it was a year ago, and that accordingly they plan to spend the same as last year or more. “Retailers should be encouraged by consumers’ tone as they plan for the critical fall and winter selling seasons,” says Stacy Janiak, who heads Deloitte’s retail practice in America.

Yet the recent improvement is from a very low base, especially at the grandest stores. Neiman Marcus’s strong April marked a rebound from a 22.5% decline in the year to April 2009; the 3.2% increase in revenues reported by Saks in the first quarter followed a 32% decline in the same period a year earlier, points out Steven Dennis, an analyst at Gerson Lehrman, a research firm. [...]

In some respects, it was easier for retailers to plan during the recession, provided they had accepted the gruesome reality, since plunging sales were all but assured. Now, there is great uncertainty about what consumers will do. If the recent uptick in sales proves short-lived, retailers who extrapolate from the latest numbers will spend a miserable holiday season trying to offload unwanted stock at crippling discounts. Conversely, excessive pessimism could lead to empty shelves, disappointed customers and red faces in the executive suite. “I am trying to create the flexibility in our supply chain to deal with both these scenarios,” says the worried boss of the large retail chain. He, unlike the typical consumer, is finding little comfort in retail therapy.

Do read the whole thing (but there is an unfortunate obscenity in a quote from someone).

I find this sort of thing interesting, because of the tacit admission that the "holiday season" and the "critical fall and winter selling seasons" drive so much of the retail economy. Both, of course, are code words for "Christmas."

Have you ever thought about the types of products you can only seem to find in the stores at Christmas time? I'm not talking about so-called "holiday" goods, like red and green tablecloths or Christmas (sorry, "Holiday") ornaments. I'm talking about quite ordinary things, like children's bathrobes, slippers for anyone other than adult women, small jewelry boxes, and the like (each of these is an example of something I tried to buy at some time other than Christmas, only to be told, "Oh, we only carry those at Christmas). With two daughters born in December and January, and the third in June, I'm aware of how vastly different it is to shop for Kitten and Bookgirl, when stores are overflowing with goods, toys, inexpensive jewelry and accessories, and the like--and to shop for Hatchick's birthday, when my requests for seemingly ordinary gift items are met with blank stares and the unhelpful information that they'll probably get those back in sometime in late October, for the beginning of the "Holiday" season. Online shopping does offer a few more choices, but there's still nothing like the selection and variety available between the time the Christmas trees start going up in the stores in late August, and the abundance of goods which explode throughout the stores just before Black Friday.

It seems to me that there's something wrong with all of this, with the heavy reliance of a whole sector of the economy on the frenzied shopping which centers around what was originally a religious holiday. As interesting as the "Christmas Wars" can be (and I've partaken in them myself), the truth is that if we worried less about whether the cashier at the Super-duper-mega-gigantic-mart said "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays," and more about what the Dickens (if Charles will pardon me) we're doing squandering so much money on consumerism and materialism to celebrate (with no awareness of the irony) the birth of our Savior Who chose to come to us as a tiny Child, poor, born in a stable and placed in a manger.

I don't say this in a sort of delayed-bah-humbug frame of mind. I don't think that a small exchange of gifts and greetings at Christmas must automatically get in the way of the greater reality we celebrate, or that a kind of Puritan austerity ought to forbid our feasting and merrymaking. But when you read an article like the one above, and realize that countless men and women have come to depend on the Christmas season for their livelihoods--to depend, that is, on the American consumer's inability to practice restraint or thrift, but instead on his need (or his greed) to spend more, buy more, give more, get more, and so forth each year--well, I can't help but wonder at it, to wonder if it was wise to build so much of an economy on this kind of spending, the kind that people might cut back on significantly in a prolonged period of economic malaise.

We are six months away from finding out just how the retailers will do this Christmas. But after this one comes another, and another, and so on. Is it really sustainable, I wonder, for so much money to be centered around one day--and a Christian holiday, at that, despite the pretense that Christmas is either a secular holiday or a multicultural one? I don't think it is--and I think that sooner or later the bill for so many extravagant Christmases past will come due for our nation.


LarryD said...

1500 posts! Wow! Congratulations!

I'll get you a congratulatory gift in about 6 months. :-)

JimmyV said...

Awesome post. I remember trying to find a really cool adjustable wrench at Home Depot for my brother's September birthday. I was told they only carried them at Christmas.