Holiday retail's uncertain outlook

Holiday retail's uncertain outlook

By Abby Christopher

1211_HolidayRetailThe annual holiday shopping marathon is upon us, and in the face of a still-fragile economy, retailers around the country and locally are collectively holding their breaths.

In Oregon, overall consumer holiday purchases are expected to increase 2.6%, less than the national average, according to Associated Oregon Industries. On average this year, consumers in Oregon and Washington are expected to spend $640.03 compared to  $704.18 last year, according to Ohio-based BIGresearch. The National Retail Federation predicts that spending nationally will be a little higher than 2010, up 2.8% to $465 billion.

Forecasting year-end holiday sales in Oregon is more of an art than a science because Oregon doesn’t tax most retail items, so it’s more difficult for economists and analysts to gather and aggregate sales data. But the state can track monthly employment figures that can provide signs of momentum, particularly starting in the back-to-school months, August and September. Holiday hiring in Oregon is expected to hover around 11,617, 2010’s final figure, or increase slightly, according to Nick Beleiciks, a state economist with Oregon’s employment division. Harry & David in Medford is expected to make up many of these seasonal hires with roughly 9,000 enlisted to field phone orders and pack gifts.

Portland-based Made in Oregon says it expects a 5% to 8% increase in holiday sales over last year, and apparel giant Columbia Sportswear expects roughly a 3% growth in retail holiday sales.

To gauge consumer buying trends, lobbying organizations, such as the National Retail Federation, as well as independent researchers conduct or commission consumer surveys that track responses by region and state.

In October, BIGresearch conducted a nationwide consumer holiday spending survey. Overall, consumers are planning to limit themselves to buying “one nice great gift” for each person on their shopping list this year, according to Pam Goodfellow of BIGresearch. Consumers will invest a lot of time looking for the best deals and are expected to buy online and flock to discount stores and outlets, Goodfellow adds.

In Oregon and Washington, BIGresearch found that consumers plan to spend less than average this year. Consumers in these states are more budget-oriented, likely to shop in non-traditional places such as crafts and fabric stores thrift shops, online and from catalogs.

“Our baseline forecast calls for a continuation of slow growth in terms of economic activity, jobs, incomes and sales,” says Oregon state economist Josh Lehner. “We expect [holiday] sales and hiring this year to be slightly better than last year.”