Has national economy put a crimp in Christmas?

Published 12:20 am Sunday, November 23, 2008

Kathy Barnes won’t be Christmas shopping at department stores or downtown shops this year. With the state of the economy, Barnes is tightening her budget.

“You just have to be more conservative this year, it seems like,” she said.

And that’s why she has opted to shop at discount stores and St. Andrew’s Thrift Store.

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“You have to shop where you find things cheap,” she said.

Barnes said she had to give special consideration to Christmas shopping this year and plan things out.

She said with the bulk of her Christmas shopping centered on children, she needs to be selective.

Toys and children’s clothes are expensive, she said, and it’s important to find the items that are going to last and might not fade out of popularity or be grown out of in a few months time.

Christmas change

Some national retail trends are changing how people plan for Christmas shopping.

One way people have traditionally helped handle the Christmas bills was layaway programs, where a store holds a item for a customer while the customer pays it off in increments. When the last payment is made, the item is released to the customer.

But in recent years retailers have begun eliminating their layaway programs.

Layaway programs take up valuable store storage space that could be used for other things, they have to be staffed, customers abandon items and the store doesn’t make any extra money on layaway items.

Kmart is the only local major retailer that still has a lay-away program, and it has seen an increase in use of the program since last Christmas, the local manager said.

“With the economy the way it is, people on strict budgets — if they are going to buy items for Christmas or a birthday — they look at the situation and think, ‘If I am going to get this I need to buy these items on layaway, and pay it out a little bit at a time as they get their paychecks every two weeks,” Kmart Office Manager Mary-Jo Britt said.

And Britt said from anecdotal experience those in lower income brackets aren’t the only ones using the layaway program any more.

“It’s (use) is going into all classes of people — from the underprivileged up,” Britt said.

Last minute locals

It’s the inter-class economic tension Britt spoke of that seems to be keeping a lot of people out of smaller local shops.

The owner of Katie’s Ladies, Katie McCarstle, said she has seen a definite downturn in business in the last couple of months.

She believes it has to do with what were the rising prices of groceries and fuel.

“I know prices have started to go down, but I think they are still watching the stock market,” she said. “People are very leery.”

Likewise, Tonja Richards, the manager of The Picket Fence in Vidalia, said that store has also seen a slowdown in business.

“Usually it gets slow the two weeks before Thanksgiving, but the two weeks before that we usually get people in starting Christmas shopping,” Richards said. “We just haven’t had the flow we normally have.”

However, Richards doesn’t believe that the slow times now will translate into bad Christmas sales.

“It seems they are just holding off (buying) right now,” Richards said. “I am having a lot more traffic that is people coming in and getting ideas. Everybody is looking for the best deal they can get.”

McCarstle said she doesn’t believe local buyers have given up on her boutique for larger retailers in other cities, and like Richards, believes people are just waiting to make sure they won’t need the money elsewhere.

“I think we will see a good deal of last minute shopping,” McCarstle said. “I think the last week before Christmas will be very busy.”

Saving, planning, buying

A desire to make sure things get done right has some people taking care of things now before they have to resort to panic shopping, however.

Natchez residents Amy and Jay Gamberi have put a lot of thought into their holiday shopping this year.

“This (Christmas) for us seems to be a little more planned and organized,” Amy said.

Jay said that’s different from previous years.

“It’s not as last minute,” he said.

Which has, in turn, saved the couple’s finances when shopping for daughters Mia, 8, and Graci, 2.

“When you have kids, you have to plan it out,” Amy said.

Part of that plan is picking up items throughout the year, Amy said.

“As we’d see things, we’d pick them up,” she said.

Also, abstaining from relying on a credit card has been beneficial to the family.

“We don’t do credit,” Amy said. “We have done credit in the past but now we do cash.”

Finally, another cash saving technique the couple uses during Christmas is to have the extended family draw names, so each member only gives and receives one present.

“Several years ago we went to Cajun Christmases,” Jay said.

Amy said due to the size of the families on both sides, it’s too cumbersome to try to buy gifts for everyone.

“It does help out,” she said. “All the kids get so much anyway, our two don’t need any extra.”

And while Jay and Amy, employees at Computer Consultants, said they aren’t feeling the pinch of the economy quite yet, they said it might be a problem next Christmas.

“It may be an issue later. Everything in this area trickles in slowly,” Jay said.