Holiday Barometers

We all know what’s been going down: the housing market, the stock market, and easy consumer credit. Unfortunately, the U.S. Labor Department also reported jobs going down—4,000 jobs were lost in August. What’s been going up, meanwhile, is the cost of living—energy, food, and health care.

During the summer, both Wal-Mart and Home Depot released disappointing sales figures, another worrisome indicator that consumer spending—the engine of the American economy—might be starting to misfire on a few cylinders.

Any of these factors on its own could spark a downward trend in buying; therefore logic would indicate that all of them combined should almost certainly portend a sizable drop in consumer spending.

But it hasn’t. At press time, reports showed back-to-school sales chugging healthily along. According to a Sept. 6 article on USA Today‘s Web site, same-store sales at Wal-Mart were up 3.1 percent, at Target they were up 6.1 percent, and at luxury retailers they were up anywhere from 4.6 percent (Neiman Marcus) to 18.2 percent (Saks). Same-store sales are measured from stores open at least a year, the standard indicator used.

While back-to-school isn’t a big time for buying jewelry, it is generally considered to be a good indicator of consumers’ willingness to spend, and a foreshadowing of holiday shopping behavior. So that’s good news.

But many of these gains are coming with asterisks, and that’s not so good. Like the fine-print *results not typical disclaimer in a celebrity-diet testimonial, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Sure, the celebrity lost 60 pounds in three months—but between gigs, he or she has enough money and time to hire a personal chef and work out for several hours daily with a trainer. The average person doesn’t.

Likewise, some of the back-to-school sales gains came from tax-relief holidays, shifting school start dates, and retailers offering huge discounts to lure shoppers. The former are isolated incidents; the latter creates volume at the expense of margins and may be masking bigger problems.

Economists have consistently underestimated Americans’ willingness to keep spending. Barring an all-out disaster, they should spend this holiday season, too. Baby boomers and subsequent generations have consumerism far too ingrained to quit shopping unless they’re forced. But expect to see a new frugality, and I’ll predict a very modest season, not a stellar one by any stretch. A recent survey conducted by Elite Traveler magazine found the super-rich (those with a net worth above $25 million) are still likely to spend big on fine jewelry this season, but the ordinary rich—and especially the merely affluent—are feeling a pinch and planning on scaling back their lifestyle and/or trading down in purchases. Read more about the survey at www.jckonline.com.

Retailers are going to have to work a lot harder to achieve the same results, they’re going to have to temper their expectations, and they’re going to have to prove real value to a price-conscious public.

The consumer will need to have a reason to buy, which means solid marketing efforts: ads that have meaning, working the phones to bring your best customers in, and, especially, having something new to fuel the desire to own. Sales of status handbags are still going strong and helping to contribute to the solid performance of luxury retailers, so the money is there if you strike the right chord with the shopper. This year, however, expect shoppers to choose between the jewelry and the bag, not buy both.

It’s not too late to pull in a selection of pieces that offer a big look for a smaller-than-expected price tag, and for a public that’s conditioned to wait for sales, this is essential. But be sure to emphasize it as a special value or special purchase—screaming discounts only serve to reinforce the notion that jewelry is overpriced in the first place.

To that end, be sure to check out the Jewelers’ Choice Awards on JCKonline.com. There are many beautiful pieces to view to give you ideas for last-minute needs, and of course, we want you, the retailers, to tell us—and tell your suppliers—by your vote what your favorite designs are. You be the judge!

On a separate note, I’d like to welcome two new members to the JCK editorial team: Jim Sewastynowicz as production editor, and Cherilyn M. Sajorda as associate production editor. Though much of their work is behind the scenes, look for their bylines on photographs and articles in the future.