December 03, 2002 11:00 pm
Happy Holidays? ().
Happy Holidays? ().

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

Optimistic but cautious best describes how some La Grande merchants expect their Christmas sales to go this year.

In an informal, unscientific survey this week by The Observer, those interviewed were generally pleased with the Thanksgiving weekend activity but seemed not so certain as to how things would look come the end of the year.

It was hard for merchants to tell after only a few days of Christmas shopping if customers appeared to be holding on to their money because of the slow economy or fear of job security, the retailers said.

Most had stocked their shelves with inventories comparable to previous years in hopes that items would sell as briskly as in the past.

There was some concern that there are six fewer days of shopping between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but the merchants felt people would get their shopping done on time and spend as many dollars.

None interviewed would estimate or predict exact numbers or percentage of sales increases over last year comparable to the national average projection of a 4 percent increase in retail sales for this Christmas season.

Not many merchants have added any significant number of employees — one or two here and there — to handle any anticipated increase in customers for this time of year, most said.

One extremely upbeat store manager was Jim Lippold of J.C. Penney on Adams Avenue.

"We had a good weekend; sales were pretty strong," he said. "Indicators are we'll do fine.

"We have pretty good stock and I have noticed an increase in sales throughout the fall," Lippold said. "I'm hopeful for a good Christmas shopping season. We have everything in place. Even with the compressed number of shopping days, I think we'll end up relatively close to last year. I'm really optimistic about how we'll do."

Lippold said sales were good "across the board."

Jeff Thomas, Bi-Mart manager at the 20th Street store, said sales so far "seem about average" although all Bi-Mart stores in Eastern Oregon are having a good year.

"Things here are starting out slowly, although we had a few good hours right after Thanksgiving. But really, we won't know until the end of the season Dec. 25. I don't keep an actual customer count," Thomas said.

"I can't tell if people are holding their money back because of the economy."

His inventories are "about the same as last year."

Thomas said having fewer shopping days this year "may hurt us" but he would not predict how much.

Gary Carlson, Emporium manager, credited great sale prices on top quality merchandise for getting the La Grande Town Center store off to a good start.

"We had a solid Thanksgiving weekend," Carlson said. "There were a lot of great deals. People were looking for good deals and we had brought in a lot of items at good prices.

"We had about the normal customer count for the after-Thanksgiving shopping throughout the store. We were really busy on Friday when people were looking for good deals. Then it got slower on Saturday and Sunday.''

Carlson said the Emporium's inventory is about at the level it has been at this time in past years except that the home fashions area is a lot larger this year.

He credited the company's bringing in "a lot of private-label merchandise of the quality you find at Macy's — very nice quality" with sparking sales.

Carlson said merchandise with an outdoor theme, especially for men's gift items, was "doing really well."

Wal-Mart manager Steve Lavin said the Island City store "had a good Thanksgiving weekend but it's too early to tell what their shopping habit will be.

"This will be the week that tells us a lot," he said Monday afternoon. "With the economy the way it is, there are some concerns that people are holding off a while before buying. We are hearing that people are holding back on their spending because they're not sure of what the economy will bring.

"We are hoping for a good season, but we're just playing it by ear. With the shorter time frame for shopping, everything's uncertain right now. It's too early to tell what people's shopping habits will be, but shoppers don't seem to be looking for that ‘must-have' item such as the Elmo doll of past years, for example," he said.

The store has sold a lot of electronics so far, he said.

"We had a good year last year; if we do as well this year, we'll be OK," he said.