ANNAPOLIS – Buoyed by a strong economy, Marylanders are expected to spend more this holiday shopping season than last year.
Tom Saquella, director of the Maryland Retailers Association, said he is expecting a 4 to 4.5 percent increase over last year’s holiday sales, based on member surveys and recent sales data.
“The economy is good and consumer confidence is high,” he said, adding clothes, jewelry, home furnishings, electronics and toys are expected to be big buys.
American Express expects shoppers to spend an average of $915 on gifts this year – up from $879 last year – based on a national survey of more than 800 consumers. Company officials predict clothes will top the gift-giving list.
The five-week holiday shopping season has its traditional start the day after Thanksgiving. Between 30 to 35 percent of the year’s retail sales will be made during those weeks, Saquella said.
Brian Paulsen, manager of the JCPenney in Owings Mills, said sales have already started climbing.
“Sales picked up with the cold weather,” Paulsen said. “People need that nip in the air before they can do their holiday shopping.”
A surge in home building and purchases will mean more home furnishings as gifts, Saquella said.
According to the Maryland Realtors Association’s most recent figures, home sales in the state went up 3.26 percent from 1996 to 1997.
Larry Barnes, vice president of Routzahan’s furniture and appliance store, said the jump in home building has already helped business. Barnes said that while Routzahan’s three stores in Frederick and Hagerstown do not carry stock that is seasonally affected, they have seen an increase in sales since Veterans Day.
Veterans Day is “midweek, so people go shopping and that gets them thinking about the holidays,” Barnes said.
Larger screen televisions will dominate electronics buying, Barnes said, while chairs, curios and pull-out sofas will be big sellers.
Computers and software will also do well, Saquella said.
And as always, toys will be attracting parents to stores.
Sandy Oliver, assistant store director for Toys “R” Us in Annapolis, said the most popular toys for younger kids are expected be:
* Furby, a stuffed toy resembling a gremlin that speaks its own language and learns the language spoken to it;
* Blue’s Clue’s, a floppy-eared blue dog; and
* Teletubbies, brightly colored dolls based on the characters in the children’s television series. They have antennas coming out of their heads.
“Furby comes in and doesn’t even last five minutes on the shelves,” Oliver said.
Sony PlayStation and PlayStation video games are expected to top the lists of older children and teens, Oliver said.
Cali Magee of Bowie agreed Teletubbies are a must-have. The 1-year-old kept reaching for the toy as her parents shopped at the Annapolis Toys “R” Us.
“It’s basically all tubbies this Christmas,” said her mother, Darlene Magee, 28.
Despite the bright buying predictions, some in the retail industry expressed concerns they would not have enough staff to satisfy consumer demands.
“You can’t get help,” said Dick Aarons, a spokesman for Barstons Child’s Play, located in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. “We’ve pulled people out of the warehouse into the store.”
Paulsen of JCPenney said this is the “hardest hiring year” he can remember. “It’s getting harder and harder to find people, even part-time,” he said. “People just don’t need the jobs. “They’re just not coming in.” -30-