Ala Moana Center is expectedBy Peter Wagner
to lead the way as holiday shopping
shifts into full throttle tomorrow
After many lean years in a lagging economy, Hawaii merchants have something to be thankful for on the eve of the holiday shopping season.
New figures from the state Department of Taxation show a 2.6 percent increase in retail sales through September. Total sales of $12,068,102,200 were up 2.6 percent from $11,764,980,300 through September 1998. The 1999 numbers also reflect a 4.8 percent turnaround from two years ago.
"I think people will be out there shopping," said Jan Berman, president of the Retail Merchants of Hawaii. "Christmas should be good."
Berman last year was not so upbeat, bemoaning a bad economy and skittish consumers in the wake of an election.
Her fears were well founded. Sales at Hawaii retailers last December were off about 16 percent from a year earlier, state Department of Taxation records showed. For all of 1998, statewide sales were down about 5 percent from 1997. But this year retailers are giving off "good vibes," Berman said.
Leading the way into Christmas and Hanukkah is the newly expanded and redecorated Ala Moana Center, long a focal point for Christmas shoppers on Oahu.
"The economy is recovering and we're on a positive track as far as retailing is concerned," said Dwight Yoshimura, senior vice president of General Growth Management of Hawaii, which manages the center. "We're very optimistic this year."
Yoshimura said merchants are well-stocked for the five-week shopping season -- traditionally from the day after Thanksgiving through New Year's Day. For many, it's a critical period accounting for up to 30 percent of annual sales.
Retailers nationwide last year rang up more than $170 billion in sales during the holiday period. With consumer confidence remaining strong, unemployment levels at 30-year lows and stock prices continuing to climb, expectations are high for this year.
Estimates are that Americans will spend at least an average of $500 per family.
Analysts project sales at traditional stores will rise 5 percent to 6 percent from last year, while online sales are expected to at least double from December 1998.
Liberty House at Ala Moana Center got the season off to a festive start on Sunday night, opening the store to credit card customers only with an array of entertainment, gifts, food and other attractions.
Marketing chief Barbara Tunno hopes the event will prime customers for the season.
"The coming weekend will be a good gauge of the Christmas shopping mood," said Tunno.
The Christmas cheer is being shared by smaller retailers too.
At Eki Cyclery on Dillingham Boulevard, sales are up nearly 10 percent this year following a difficult 1998.
"We're a little more hopeful," said Jayne Kim, who runs the 88-year-old store with husband Jay.
The company since October has been beefing up its inventory of children's bikes and lower-end adult models.
But the prospect of a good Christmas -- which brings 20 percent of the company's annual sales -- has been tempered by the recent earthquake in Taiwan, where Schwinn and other brands are made.
"We didn't foresee that problem" said Kim, waiting anxiously for a shipment of 50 bicycles. "We're crossing our fingers the bikes are going to make it."
Dennis Chun, part-owner of Hungry Ear Records & Tapes, is struggling to find a niche in a market dominated by big mainland retailers.
But Chun, who plans to close his Wahiawa store after Christmas to concentrate on remaining stores in Kailua and Honolulu, doesn't put much stock in the holiday trade.
"Our business is built on our repeat customers that visit us all during the year," he said.
Still, he hopes his eclectic inventory and customer service will draw holiday shoppers.
Biding her time this week while other retailers beef up for the "pre-Christmas" rush was Ginny Cabato, who with her husband Cippy runs Classic Longboards on Kapahulu Avenue.
The increased popularity of longboard surfing in recent years has raised the price of boards, Cabato said, making even a used board an expensive Christmas gift.
But, armed with cash gifts, customers find a way to pop in.
"It's usually right after Christmas when people come in to buy a board," she said. "After they get their Christmas money."