Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Looking for Something Practical

Everyone in U.S. retail was expecting a lackluster December 2007, even after unusually high sales totals in November. At the end of the season, the report of high gift certificate sales led some to hope that the week after Christmas would salvage the shopping season. But the scene I saw at shopping centers yesterday told a different story. Parking lots were nearly empty, with no more shoppers than you would find on an ordinary weekday. Shoppers are holding on to the gift cards they got, waiting until there is something in particular they need to buy.

If there is a saving grace in the retail reports for December, it can be found in the signs of shoppers looking for something practical. Computers did pretty well; cars and large-screen televisions disappointed; style-oriented boutiques and upscale department stores fared the worst. People were giving gifts that solved problems or that let the recipient do something of value.

One friend told me that people have so much stuff already that he has resolved to give only consumable items, such as food, as gifts. I tried this myself at Christmas. Giving a box of tea might not have the same drama a giving a coffee cup, but in a way, that is a good thing. The primary purpose of gifts, after all, is to help people feel included so that you can have a pleasant social occasion. Drama is not necessarily the first thing you are looking for when you get together with your family . . . is it?

Perhaps people are turning toward practicality because they see signs of turbulence in the world. You can prepare for difficult times — even when you do not know the nature of the difficulties — by making sure the basics of life are taken care of. In a booming economy, you can start the day looking for new opportunities. When the economy falters, you need to make sure you pay the bills and take out the trash.