Gulf Coast residents may spend their way to happy holidays

Published 5:08 pm Wednesday, November 15, 2006

It’s Monday morning — usually the graveyard shift for retailing — but the suburban Lakeside Mall is bustling.

Moms push strollers adorned with shopping bags. Guys buy video games and DVDs. Singles dodge kiosk salesmen en route to a store. Along the Gulf Coast, residents appear to be taking out their Katrina angst at the cash register — buying clothes, home furnishings and pricey jewelry, and giving many merchants an optimistic outlook for the critical holiday selling season.

“People don’t forget Christmas, and they probably will be more likely to want to celebrate Christmas now because they want to get back to normal,” said Tom Collens, executive vice president of the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater New Orleans.

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Last year, the holidays were far from normal for many from the Gulf Coast, marked in far-flung cities, away from hurricane-displaced loved ones, or in FEMA trailers that, in some cases, were defiantly decked-out. This year, despite constant reminders of Hurricane Katrina, from rows of gutted houses to fights with insurance companies, many local residents are looking forward to something to celebrate.

Some don’t plan to follow a budget, saying they’re willing to spend their way to holiday happiness. For others, spending plans are tempered by the financial aftermath of the storm.

“Christmas is bringing me a tremendous amount of joy because it’s lending some continuity to my life again,” said Mary Ann Francois, who’s excited to put up a tree in her new Garden District condo. She lost her larger home, the family’s traditional holiday gathering place, and beloved decorations to Katrina’s floodwaters.

Nationwide, holiday spending is expected to hit $457.4 billion, up 5 percent from a year ago, according to the National Retail Federation. The holiday retail season can account for 40 percent of annual sales but up to 75 percent of bottom-line profits for many retailers, according to a study by Purdue University researcher Richard Feinberg.

Along the Gulf Coast, some businesses haven’t reopened since Katrina. Downtown Bay St. Louis, Miss., has about 60 percent of the shops it had before the storm; shopping is limited in heavily damaged Pass Christian, Miss.; and storefronts are still empty in some New Orleans neighborhoods.

Retailers that are back in business are counting on the win-win of spending for hurricane repairs and typical holiday spending.

Among them is Home Depot, which has done big business in the storm-damaged region selling home building and remodeling wares. It also is selling trees and decorations and, already, reports sales of holiday items “as strong as they’ve ever been,” spokesman Don Harrison said.

In Biloxi, Miss., Edgewater Mall is hoping for sales comparable to 2004, even with some stores still closed. “We have great expectations,” marketing director Michelle Rogers said.

Three major malls in the New Orleans area — Lakeside, Clearview and The Esplanade — also expect year-end sales to meet, if not exceed, those of 2004. A local economist believes that may be a stretch, given the drop in population. One recent measure put New Orleans’ population at about 188,000, less than half its pre-Katrina level.

Still, Janet Speyrer, a University of New Orleans economist, said sales are bound to be better than last year when attention was still focused on the damage of Katrina’s wind and floodwaters. Many people now have insurance settlements or other funds at their disposal, and a fair amount of “feel-good” spending is going on, she said.

Feeling good and coping with day-to-day realities in a still largely devastated city takes perseverance.

Child-care worker Carolyn Doss hopes to make Christmas as nice as possible for her two daughters. There’s no room in their FEMA trailer to store the bikes each wants, and Doss doesn’t think it’s safe for her 12- and 14-year-olds to ride in their hard-hit and now largely deserted eastern New Orleans neighborhood.

“I just try to keep them focused on the real meaning of Christmas, which is Christ’s birth,” Doss said.

Since Katrina, many stores have reopened with shorter hours because they couldn’t find enough workers. As the holiday season nears, at least two suburban malls, The Esplanade in Kenner and Lakeside Mall in Metairie, plan longer hours.

Macy’s announced it will not reopen its downtown department store next to the Louisiana Superdome, and its storm-damaged store at The Esplanade will not be repaired in time for the holiday season. Macy’s loss is likely to be other retailers’ gain.

Ryan Berg expects strong holiday sales at his two Lee Michaels jewelry stores. He has expanded his Rolex selection at the Lakeside shop and hopes traffic picks up at his store at the Canal Place mall near the French Quarter. Saks Fifth Avenue, a key draw at Canal Place before Katrina, is expected to reopen before Thanksgiving, he said.

Rolex sales have been brisk, Berg said, but it’s the woman who bought a $20,000 ring to replace one she lost in Katrina that really stands out. She wrote a check for it, after first telephoning her husband. “That’s very, very rare,” he said.

Berg’s biggest concern is finding enough salespeople, a refrain repeated in a city with such a tight labor market that pizza delivery drivers are offered signing bonuses.

Tricia Thriffiley, marketing director for Lakeside, remembers the mood at the mall when it reopened in October 2005, two months after Katrina blew off parts of its roof.

“People sometimes had to wait a half-hour to check out in some stores,” Thriffiley said. “They had stood in line for FEMA and the Red Cross for things they needed, and then stood in long lines for things they wanted.”

On a recent Monday, queues in some shops were far shorter. At the Discovery Channel Store, parents browsed educational DVDs and Roboreptiles, which store manager Tom Kent expects to be a leading seller this season despite their $99 price tag.

“I think we’re going to have a great season,” KB district manager Deborah Traina said. “Even if people are a little strapped for cash, we tend to go above and beyond for our children.”

Chad Alfonso plans to do so for his son, Chad. It is, after all, the child’s first Christmas, and Alfonso considers his family luckier than many since they’re back at their home in the St. Bernard Parish community of Poydras.

Katrina was “a life-changing event, something terrible that happened,” Alfonso said. However, “we’re going to enjoy Christmas, just like any other year.”