Retailers count sales and cross their fingers

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by Robert Powell

Virginia students are finally back in school, learning their “sums” among other things. Meanwhile, retailers in Virginia and around the country are counting up the results of their back-to-school sales.

Those numbers could predict how retailers will do in their most important sales period, the holiday shopping season. Many retailers see back-to-school sales as a bellwether for the final months of the year, adjusting their plans for staff and inventories accordingly.

But retailers aren’t the only ones closely watching the direction of store sales. Consumer spending accounts for roughly 70 percent of the nation’s economic activity. Other sectors, such as manufacturing and housing, have shown positive signs in recent weeks, but an economic recovery might stall unless consumers open their pocketbooks.

Pessimism about holiday sales already was setting in before retailers announced their August sales figures late last week. Researchers were expecting sales at stores open at least 12 months to be down 3.6 to 3.8 percent from last year.

Instead, sales for 32 major retailers fell just 2 percent, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers and Goldman Sachs. In Wall Street parlance, that performance beat expectations. The Dow Jones industrial average rose about 64 points on the news.

In fact, the news for retailers may be even better than the August results suggest. Labor Day fell on Sept. 7 this year after being on Sept 1 in 2008. That means a full week of back-to-school spending this year in Virginia and some other states won’t show up until September sales are compiled early next month.

So holiday sales may not be “Ho, Ho, Ho” for retailers this year, but they might avoid being another “Oh, no.”

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