Economic Outlook: Seasonal surprises

By ANTHONY HALL, United Press International  |  Dec. 21, 2009 at 7:55 AM
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U.S. retailers ironically faced the farmers' timeless adversary this weekend: A winter storm that socked in Christmas shoppers on a critical shopping day.

Farmers, for the most part, have their harvest work done, but retailers were waiting for a last minute wave of Christmas shopping when a foot or more snow blanketed East Coast shopping areas Saturday and Sunday -- a weekend some believe is more important than Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.

Retail experts say the Saturday before Christmas is even more profitable than the day after Thanksgiving, which has become a massive loss leader for retail's biggest season. Discounts take much of the fun out of Black Friday for store keepers. But to play fair, consumers are supposed to shop after that.

"The snowstorm came on the most important shopping day of the season, if not the year, and hit the most important market in the United States," market analyst John Morris at BMO Capital Markets told The New York Times.

It was a storm, however, that could test the nation's digital infrastructure as many with shopping on their minds and cars buried turned to online shopping.

Suddenly, it felt like the warning of "how many shopping days left until Christmas" had morphed into "how many shipping days left" to get gifts under the tree on time.

"We certainly have seen in the past an effect from storms like this, that it can prompt more people to buy things online when they can't go out and look at them themselves in the store," United Parcel Service spokesman Norman Black said.

Adding insult to injury, a fire in which no one was reported hurt, broke out in a New York City Macy's store, forcing an evacuation Sunday, the Times reported.

It will take a while for the storm to translate into hard retail numbers.

On Friday, the Labor Department released a state-by-state report that indicated unemployment rates dropped in 36 states in November, the first time a majority of states showed job gains since April.

Nationally, the unemployment rate remained at 10 percent, having ticked down from October's 10.2 percent.

While unemployment ranges from 14.7 percent in Michigan to 4.1 percent in North Dakota, temporary hiring has begun to surge, perhaps a first step for some permanent jobs to return, the Times reported Monday.

"When a job comes open now, our members fill it with a temp … and then they wait to see what will happen next," said William Dennis Jr., director of research for the National Federation of Independent Business.

The surge in temporary work helped bring job losses down from 263,000 in September to 190,000 in October to just 11,000 in November when 52,000 temporary jobs were added to the economy.

Markets around the world were mixed Monday following last week's flat performances. In Japan, the Nikkei 225 rose 0.41 percent. In China, the Shanghai composite index rose 0.29 percent. The Hang Seng index in Hong Kong fell 1.08 percent, while the Sensex in India lost 0.71 percent.

In Australia, the S&P/ASX 200 lost 0.33 percent.

In midday trading in Europe, the FTSE 100 in Britain rose 1.24 percent, while the DAX 30 in Germany rose 0.76 percent. The CAC 40 in France added 0.87 percent, while the pan-European DJ Stoxx 50 gained 0.78 percent.

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