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On the Bright Side, Shopping Bargains Abound

Stephanie Rosenbloom|The New York Times
Friday, 4 Jul 2008 | 4:04 AM ET

Anyone who has managed to forget about fuel prices long enough to enjoy a little retail therapy knows some steep discounts are available these days.

“I’ve noticed there is a ton of stuff on sale,” said Barbara Friedman, who was shopping on Thursday with a friend, Evelyn Hatfield, at Lord & Taylor in Midtown Manhattan. They were marveling at discounts as high as 50 percent in stores they had visited.

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Retailers deny that the gloomy economic landscape has prompted them to offer deeper and earlier discounts this summer than in previous years. But industry analysts and those who study marketing and consumer behavior say the stores have an incentive to pretend nothing is amiss, even as they post eye-popping sale signs.

“The sales are very aggressive,” said Marshal Cohen, the chief industry analyst at the NPD Group. “They’re trying to lure whatever dollar is available as quickly as they can get it.”

With consumer confidence at a 16-year low, retailers are clearly under pressure. A truer picture of the retailer situation should emerge next week when the big chains report sales numbers for June.

For now, Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation, a trade group, acknowledges only that sales to unload summer gear and make way for fall merchandise are “creeping up a little earlier” than in the past.

“It’s so early,” said Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist in San Francisco who has been noticing a proliferation of sales throughout department and specialty stores. “They keep an eye on each other. This year they’re in a panic to make sure they’re the first one.”

Rarely have consumers been this tight. Personal savings as a percentage of disposable personal income jumped to 5 percent in May, up from 0.4 percent in April.

If shoppers splurge it will most likely be on only one item this summer, Ms. Yarrow said, rather than three or four.

Half of the inventory at Ann Taylor Loft is on sale, and shoppers can take an additional 20 percent off their entire purchase. Merchandise is up to 50 percent off at J. Crew, Banana Republic, Old Navy and the Body Shop.

At Macy’s , Ben Sherman men’s dress shirts were $59.99, marked down from $89.50. At Bergdorf Goodman this week, a swingy Chloe sundress was $625, down from $1,275. A black ruffled-hem Dolce & Gabbana dress was $711, down from $1,450.

J. C. Penney’s “lowest prices of the summer” sale ended before the first Fourth of July fireworks started. Customers buying one towel or T-shirt could get a second for 88 cents. A new sale, celebrating Independence Day, has just begun.

“Zara is having a great sale,” said Stephanie Kinlock, 25, as she walked down Fifth Avenue. “The whole store is on sale.” Ms. Kinlock, who was carrying a Macy’s bag, said the deals this summer seemed better than last year. She had been shopping for a dress in Macy’s with her sister, Camille, 27.

“I came to help but I ended up buying,” she said.

David Wyss, chief economist at Standard and Poor’s, said many retailers are still hoping to grab a share of consumers’ tax rebate checks by offering tempting promotions. The last wave of checks will be mailed no later than next week. In May, retailers selling anything other than fuel or food barely saw an uptick from the checks, though electronics were an exception.

“That’s because when the average guy opens an $800 rebate check it looks a lot like a large-screen television set,” Mr. Wyss said.

When June sales at stores open at least a year, known as same-store sales and a barometer of retail health, are announced next week, analysts expect the results to be spotty, though certainly not all gloom and doom. They think pent-up demand, warm weather and the flurry of promotions will give a boost to some stores, even if it only means their negative sales figures are less negative.

Ken Perkins, the founder of Retail Metrics, a research group, said analysts expect a 2 percent increase in June sales. He characterized that as modest given the stimulus package and estimated an increase closer to 3 percent. “Nothing stellar but not too bad,” he said, “and sort of buoyed by the rebate.”

Kimberly Greenberger, an analyst with Citigroup, said she expects June same-store sales to improve by 2 to 3 percent over her May figure, which was negative 3. Many retailers now have better control over their inventories, she said, and rising temperatures mean that shorts and tank tops are no longer lingering on shelves.

Mr. Cohen of the NPD Group said the segments likely to fare the worst are women’s fashion and high-end footwear. Faring better will be parts of the home sector, he said, because people are sprucing up their homes rather than buying new ones.

Sales of video games and toys should do well, he said, as parents do without so their children will not have to.

As for rebate checks, even if they do nudge sales up, analysts say the effect will not be long-lasting.

Lynn Franco, director of the Consumer Research Center at the Conference Board, a business membership and research organization, said the current environment reminds her of rebate checks the government handed out in 2001. “It had this one-quarter impact,” she said. “And there was a sort of retrenchment in spending.”

Of course that applies only to Americans. International shoppers are spending.

“We’ve seen a lot of Italians. A lot of Spaniards,” Ms. Hatfield, of Tulsa, said in Lord & Taylor. “Which of course says a lot about our dollar.” A falling dollar makes American goods cheaper for foreigners.

In Gucci, Ms. Friedman phoned her husband to tell him how overseas shoppers were buying several-thousand-dollar bags “like they’re giving it away.”

As Ms. Yarrow, the consumer psychologist, put it: “We’re the bargain-basement headquarters of the world.”

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