By Joel Hall
Large retailers operating in Clayton and Henry counties performed better than expected during the recent holiday shopping season, according to local business leaders. And while the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported national unemployment levels holding at 10 percent, local experts believe recent retail sales gains may be a sign that consumer confidence is slowly returning.
Mike Vigil, immediate past chairman of the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, said consumers are slowly getting "back in the buying mood" and that he believes 2010 will have a "much better" financial outlook than 2009.
"People felt more comfortable spending money this year," Vigil said. "Last year, they were so worried about having a job or not. I believe that some of that is starting to pass. I do think 2010 will be much better than 2009."
Chris Lemley, a marketing professor and director of the professional selling and sales leadership program at Georgia State University, said unemployment contributed to large, discount retailers such as Wal-Mart and Kmart performing "exceedingly well" over the holidays. He said many retailers started their holiday sales early, and that steeper discounts contributed to higher sales volumes than last year.
"The retailers were really throwing chum to the water this year," Lemley said. "A lot of retailers discounted more deeply than they did in the past. A lot of people came out with their best offers around Thanksgiving this year. You may have seen a lot more merchandise sold this year, but in terms of dollar sales, it may have gone up a little bit, but not much. Discount retailers have done well."
Lemley said unemployment continues to be a "lag factor" in the local economy. The latest statistics from the Georgia Department of Labor show November 2009 unemployment levels were 12.2 percent for Clayton County and 10.1 percent for Henry County.
While many retailers have yet to report their fourth-quarter earnings, Lemley said, he expects a better economic outlook going into the second quarter of 2010.
"People are still scared and we still have a lot of people out of work," he said. "[However], those left in their jobs feel a little better this year than last year, and that is some of the activity you are seeing. We're seeing some activity in the stock market and, in the financial market, we're seeing the banks pay back the money they borrowed from the government, which is a good sign that the fundamentals of the economy are coming back."
Macy's, Inc., which operates locally at Southlake Mall in Morrow, reported total sales for the five weeks ending Jan. 2, 2010, increased 0.7 percent compared to sales in the five weeks ending Jan. 3, 2009. On a same-store basis, Macy's sales were up 1 percent in December.
Kmart, which operates locally on Tara Boulevard in Jonesboro, reported its December 2009 sales up 5.3 percent from the previous year and its fourth-quarter earnings up 2.6 percent from the previous year. The chain reported increases in toy, home, and apparel sales.
Best Buy Co., Inc., which operates in Clayton and Henry counties, reported December sales grew 13 percent to $8.5 billion, up from $7.5 billion in December 2008.
Kay Pippin, president of the Henry County Chamber of Commerce, said the Tanger Outlet Center in Locust Grove, and JCPenney, Wal-Mart, and Moye's Pharmacy stores in McDonough, reported strong holiday sales. She said creative marketing strategies, as well as local shopping campaigns, brought in "guardedly optimistic" customers.
"Retailers tried every approach imaginable to attract customers this year," Pippin said. "Despite the struggling economy, Henry County merchants reported good sales for the recent holiday season. Tanger Outlets in Locust Grove reports that while their Thanksgiving sales were strong, December sales were phenomenal and even a vast improvement over 2008 holiday sales. Other major department stores reported sales at least as good as last year, if not better.
"We are learning some valuable lessons from this economy, like how important it is to spend money in your own community, to shop wisely, and consumers and businesses alike are placing a very high value on customer service," she added. "These hard times are producing some good results."