That last-minute shopping spree just before Christmas may have been more of a last gasp than a preview of consumer spending to come in 1981. Most economist and retail analysts agree that the average consumer has been short on cash for shopping and very reluctant to use credit. Though a federal tax cut could help, those basic facts are not expected to change in the new year. Many economists, stressing they do not expect consumers to be were five years ago, do not look for an upturn in consumer spending until summer or fall.
No question but that retailers were thrilled with the surge in sales that hit their stores in the three to four days just before Christmas. Many claim that consumers all along were after quality. New York's Bloomingdale's reported brisk sales of $342-a-pound caviar, while San Francisco's I. Magnin's sold $100 ,000 worth of cashmere sweaters just in the first two days of the shopping season. But sales reports from the financially pressed Midwest indicate that shoppers spent their Christmas money on practical items here such as sweaters and portable TVs.
Even so, all across the country much of what was up for sale was "on sale" -- particularly so by the time shoppers thronged the aisles just before Christmas. A spokesman for Federated Department Stores Inc. concedes that muc of the last-minute surge and purchases were do to heavy sales promotions by most major stores. The current $64,000 question is whether the volume of sales is enough to really add up to a profit for retailers.
"I suspect that a sizable portion of the sales volume was marked-down goods and that will cut into profits," observes Murray Forseter, editor of Chain Store Age General Merchandizing magazine, a monthly publication keeping close tabs on the nation's top 15 companies from Sears to K-mart.
Indeed, there is some concern among economist as to whether even those consumers who bought up last-minute bargains could afford to do what they did.
"The downturn in consumer spending this year hasn't been due to attitude but to flatter incomes," says Jay Schmiedeskamp, director of the Gallup Economic Service. "People have been having trouble balancing their checkbooks."
Elizabeth Allison, a senior economist with Data Resources Inc., an economic consulting service in Massachusetts, likens the late December spening decision to Scarlet O'Hara's remark in "Gone with the Wine," when virtually everything was collapsing around her. Faced with the question of how she would put her life together again, she said she would think about that "tomorrow."
The consumer's reluctance to borrow showed up in 1980 in lackluster sales of homes, cars, and home furnishings. Most economists expect Americans to stay away from such credit-senstive purchases in 1981.
Many analysts say, accordingly, that they expect an uneventful first two quarters in spending.
A "mild decline" is the consumer spending forcast of Data Resources Inc. Still, sales are expected to grow stronger as the year progresses. By its close , 1981 could well be a better year for retailers than this year.