AChristmas Story

Listen long enough and hard enough and you’ll hear it all. Open-air centers won’t work in cold climates. Malls are dead. Restaurants kill retail. Restaurants boost retail. Group restaurants. Scatter restaurants. Whatever.

When you’ve interviewed as many retailers and developers as we industry journalists do, you begin to feel something like a yo-yo, bouncing up and down amongst all the opinions and assertions, tangling with what’s reality and what’s not.

Even news reports can be misleading (this coming from a member of the press, mind you), depending upon how the information is spun. Take an early December CNNMoney.com report that holiday mall traffic had hit the skids. “Mall traffic has dropped dramatically,” the online report read. Buried in the guts of the story was a caveat issued by traffic monitor ShopperTrak that many consumers were waiting until the last minute to wrap up their holiday spending.

Turns out, that was the case. ShopperTrak reported a 14% retail sales increase for the week ending Dec. 29, and year-over-year traffic increases of nearly 7%. The report—ShopperTrak RCT Corp.’s National Retail Sales Estimate (NRSE)—attributed the sales and traffic rises to last-minute shopping, as well as widespread post-Christmas discounts and gift-card redemptions, putting “the holiday season right on track to reach ShopperTrak’s predicted 3.6% sales increase for the holiday season.”

Three-point-six percent may not be trumpeting material, but it’s a sight better than a downward skid. And it demonstrates that a little understanding for how consumers work would provide more reliable fodder for pre-holiday sales forecasts. For instance, a survey commissioned by the International Council of Shopping Centers found that only 50% of shoppers had completed half or most of their holiday shopping as of the time the survey was conducted—which was Dec. 13-16. Why the delay? Sixty-seven percent of shoppers felt cushioned by the calendar, as a full weekend just before Christmas allowed a two-day window for last-minute buying. Too, gift-card popularity served as a stress reducer, as 52% of respondents said the gift-card option allowed them to delay their shopping without anxiety.

Doomsayers tend to ignore consumer tendencies; gloom makes for better headlines. But retailers and mall owners are doing an increasingly better job of reading customers’ pulses and predicting their shopping behaviors. Right after the holidays, I interviewed Larry Jensen, executive VP and director of client relationship management for Atlanta-based Jones Lang LaSalle, who emphasized that understanding what consumers want and need has been the key to mall success. Jensen, who manages more than 60 malls nationwide, said, “Maximizing the holiday season has meant staying in touch with the customer, staying in touch with the retailers and creating a great mall environment.”

None of us in retail can ignore the negative impact that the housing downturn and rising gas prices have had on consumer spending. But as the 2007 holiday season showed us, staying in touch with what consumers want and need, and how and when they shop, can help upturn downturns no matter what time of year it is.