Retailers ordered their winter merchandise in July and August and had it in the store early in September — way back before President Bush went on television to warn us all that the economy was on the brink of collapse. Now, with consumer confidence near record lows, the stores still have to sell all this merchandise somehow. That’s why you are seeing sales that look a lot like after-Christmas discounts. Retailers bracing for the worst holiday season ever are more than willing to take the risk of selling out of some items well before Christmas if it means they’re not stuck with a lot of excess inventory in January.
It is not a good situation for the retailers to be in: “This holiday season is shaping up to be the battle of the better deal — and it’s a bloody battle indeed,” is the way Business Week put it. Stores such as The Gap that were more cautious about what they bought for winter may sell a lot less, but with a chance at making a real markup, they’ll come out a lot better.
As for the consumers, if times are tight, you’re still better off trying your luck in secondhand shops. The selection isn’t what it was last year, with merchandise selling 10 percent faster than a year ago, but it’s still much better than what you might remember from 10 or 20 years ago. And the prices — still typically $3–5 — will be hard for the department stores to beat.
The unmistakeable trend, though, is for people to wear clothes they already have. I wrote about political activists forgetting to buy fall clothing, but that’s a trend that seems to be affecting everyone. Clothing lasts longer than ever now, and fashion trends are weaker than they have been since the early Renaissance, so you really can’t tell who is wearing new clothing, and who is wearing clothing from five years ago.