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Slumping retailers need a merry Christmas

In the Neiman-Marcus store in Boston's Copley Place, a few chic salesgirls stand in front of racks, holding up the latest perfume samples. Shoppers stroll by, glancing around, but rarely stopping. Downtown, meanwhile, Filene's Basement is busy, but devoid of characteristic holiday havoc. It is bracing itself for the onrush of shoppers soon to come.

So far, there is no evidence here of the stock market's 508-point nose dive Oct. 19. Sales are about the same as before - sluggish - and stores are awaiting, some more anxiously than others, the annual rush that begins around Thanksgiving to see what happens.

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``Retailers were having a poor time of it before the market fell,'' says Karen Grimes, a securities analyst at Butcher & Singer Inc., an investment research firm. ``This is certainly not going to help.''

This Christmas won't be as merry as it's been in the past, but most analysts say it won't be a failure, either. Late last week, the nation's largest general retailers reported their sales figures for the month of October, and in general, consumer spending rose slightly.

Still, industry observers say retailers are taking a conservative approach to the holiday. Hiring and inventories are being kept to a minimum in order to avoid being stung at the end of the season.

``If people see this market decline as a sharp vote of no confidence in the economy, they'll curb spending,'' says Richard Pyle, managing director at Piper, Jaffray & Hopwood Inc., a Minneapolis brokerage.

Surveys by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan indicate that confidence has indeed been shaken. ``It looks as if the effect is going to be substantial,'' says Thomas Juster, a research scientist at the university, where the surveys are taken.

Even before the slump, he says, people were feeling uneasy about their own finances, especially the amount of debt they had accumulated. ``Over the last couple of years, people have moved their financial portfolios more toward debt and tangible assets.''

Although the market's fall directly affected only a minority of the population - about 19 percent of Americans invest directly in the market - ``now all of a sudden people think we're going to have a recession,'' Mr. Pyle says. Consumer reaction is a combination of actual loss and sudden apprehension, he explains.

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Following the market's plunge, the chairman of President Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers, Beryl Sprinkel, also said he expected shock waves from the market to restrain consumption and capital spending.

Whether or not weakened consumer confidence will rattle plans for spending at Christmas is another question, though. Some analysts contend that predicting it helps bring it about. ``It's a little self-fulfilling,'' Ms. Grimes at Butcher & Singer says.

``People usually don't allow something like this to affect what they give their children anyway,'' says Laurie Lively, a vice-president at Oppenheimer & Co., a New York research firm.

Retailers certainly hope so.

They need a green Christmas, particularly after this troublesome year. Retail stocks tumbled three to four weeks before the general market collapse, and throughout the year a majority of them underperformed the market. The biggest losers have been specialty stores like Gap Inc. and Limited Inc., says Ms. Grimes.

They're having a hard time coming back, she says, because ``they've all copied each other so that they're not so special anymore.''

For other retailers, customer resistance to price increases is a problem. Higher manufacturing costs overseas have helped push many prices way up, says Kurt Barnard, editor and publisher of Retail Marketing Report. It's even less likely that consumers will want to pay those prices now, he says.

But even before October's market slump, retailers were counting on the holidays to make up for a slow second half. After all, Christmas gift-giving usually generates between 50 and 70 percent of annual sales and profits for both toymakers and retailers.

Earlier this year, the Retail Marketing Report predicted retail sales would be up about 6 percent because of Christmas. Now, Mr. Barnard doubts it can reach that. ``The effect of a $480 billion paper loss in one trading session has indeed cast a cloud of vulnerability over all America,'' he says.

According to a Standard & Poor's listing of industries whose stocks fared the best and worst during the month of October, toys, leisure-time enterprises, and retail department stores were among the worst performers

Toy stocks lost the most, down 41.8 percent; retail department stores did a little better, with a 31.8 percent loss. While utilities lost less than 5 percent, household products were down about 15 percent, and foods lost more than 18 percent.

Still, most major department stores and especially discount retailers remain hopeful. ``[Any effect] is more psychological than economic,'' so consumption should not tumble, says Gordon Jones, chairman of Sears, Roebuck & Co.

Five-and-dimes, like F.W. Woolworth, say that if anything they expect a further increase in sales. Last month, Woolworth's sales rose 9.5 percent over the same time a year ago.

Sears, the nation's largest retailer, reported its sales rose 1 percent last month from October 1986 levels. J.C. Penney Company, Kmart Corporation, and WalMart Stores Inc. were among others reporting increases.

Federated's stores, which include the upscale Bloomingdale's, Burdine's, and Filene's chains, had only a 1.7 percent sales increase in October.

Even the exclusive Tiffany & Co. expects sales to be strong, and it points out that it had ``a double-digit sales increase'' during the two weeks following ``Black Monday.''

But certain markets have acknowledged minor blows.

Analysts expected that stores and products catering exclusively to young, urban professionals would be hardest hit by the market's drop. This seems to be the case, with people postponing big-ticket items like cars, boats, homes, and expensive discretionary items, says Barnard at Retail Marketing.

Neiman-Marcus is one of the few luxury retailers to report that it posted slower sales for the two weeks after the market's fall.

``But it's very difficult to say what that's attributed to ... one or two weeks of sales don't necessarily indicate a trend,'' says Janine Dusossoit, spokeswoman at the Boston office of Neiman-Marcus Group Inc.

Analysts do point out, however, that the market's dive is likely to generate some bargains for Christmas shoppers.

If confidence is indeed shaken and spending declines, says Mr. Pyle at Piper, Jaffray & Hopwood, retailers may lower their prices to get rid of excess inventories. While this could mean lower earnings and profit margins for manufacturers and retailers, it may be the only way for stores to bring in enough shoppers this year.

Even with lower prices, consumers may ``go a little less overboard'' than usual, says Professor Juster at the University of Michigan. ``People might not want to go into debt for their kids.''

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