Telltale Signs

Now that the 2004 holiday season is over, the results should be no surprise to most retailers. Happily, the season posted gains over last year's sales, although in most sectors the growth was modest. But signs that it would be modest were evident in August, when back-to-school sales came in softer than expected. What does back-to-school have to do with jewelry? Not much. But it has everything to do with taking the temperature of a nation and how flush its people are feeling. When they feel flush, kids go back to school kitted out with everything from designer jeans to designer sneakers to designer computers. When parents don't feel so flush, the kids get fewer—or cheaper—goods, unless they want to ante up themselves from babysitting and burger-flipping funds. Retail analysts look at back-to-school sales as a harbinger of Christmas, because if the parents don't feel flush, the kid

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