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    Chain Store Age Article, May 2003
    By: Britt Beemer

    As war with Iraq loomed on the horizon in the spring of 2003, the stock market was clearly jittery. And so were most Americans.

    The endless talk of war, elevated warnings of terrorist attacks, a shaky economy with business closings and layoffs daily, and a harsh winter for much of the country combined to work against the retail community.

    It seemed that shopping, except for essentials, was the last thing on the minds of many American consumers.

    We interviewed 1,000 shoppers for our Consumer Mind Reader ™ survey, and asked if they had postponed any purchase of $500 or more during the previous month. Normally four to six percent answer that they have delayed a major purchase, usually citing the lack of appealing product as the major reason for the postponement.

    But in our latest survey an incredible 16.2 percent of consumers reported they had decided to postpone purchasing products costing $500 or more. Their number one reason for the delay, given by more than a third of those interviewed, was that they were simply reluctant to spend that much money right now. High utility bills were cited by 19.1 percent, and not finding what they wanted finished third with 13.6 percent, followed by job worries and lack of time.

    When asked specifically if they had delayed any purchases because of anxiety about the war, 6.1 percent reported they had done so. Airline travel, automobiles and boats took the biggest hits from American shoppers concerned about the conflict.

    Despite the obstacles working against retailers, some categories did fare well in the first quarter of 2003. Those that did well focused on the home environment, as Americans obviously were planning to spend more time around the house.

    Home improvement stores showed dramatic improvement, with 33.4 percent of those interviewed saying they had shopped such stores during the previous month, up from 27.6 percent last year. The federal government’s advice to Americans to stock up on

    duct tape and plastic sheeting probably accounted for some of the growth, along with the fact that if they were spending more time at home they wanted to improve their living quarters inside and out.

    Bed and bath stores also showed a huge increase in store traffic, up from 10.9 percent of shoppers last year to 16.3 percent this spring. Sporting goods sales were also up significantly, with purchases of firearms playing a role.

    Likewise apparel stores showed marked improvement in both number of shoppers frequenting those stores and in the amount they spent on each visit. These increases were driven in part by big mark downs on winter apparel items.

    Retail categories taking the biggest hits were major department stores and the internet. Major department stores saw more than 17 percent fewer shoppers according to our survey, with many consumers preferring apparel specialty stores for products they previously bought in department stores.

    Shopping online, in my opinion, has reached its limit for the time being. The internet is not attracting new consumers to buy online. In fact, our latest survey showed a decline from $21.54 in 2002 to $15.13 in average purchases online.

    Obviously the retail community has faced some serious challenges outside its control this year with many struggling to survive. When the recovery comes, the successful retailers will be those with fresh product, attractive pricing and a new attitude that makes customers feel good about shopping in their stores.

    Big Winners
    • Home Improvement Stores
    • Bed and Bath Stores
    • Sporting Goods Stores
    • Apparel Stores

    Big Losers:
  • Major Department Stores
  • Internet Shopping

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