Oklahoma retailers hoping for brisk holiday sales

Friday, November 28th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The stock market's up, concerns about terrorism are down and Oklahoma has the No. 1 football team in the land.

It's enough to fill a Sooner's heart with optimism and pride. Oklahoma retailers hope it's a recipe for a brisk holiday shopping season.

``The outlook is very strong,'' said Lynn Palmerton, general manager of Sooner Mall in Norman and head of the Norman Chamber of Commerce's retail task force.

The day after Thanksgiving marked the traditional start of the holiday buying blitz, but Oklahoma merchants have watched their sales surge upward throughout November as shoppers started early.

``Already we have started to see some increase in traffic and sales,'' Palmerton said. ``Store managers have a real positive and optimistic outlook.''

The cheerful mood is reflected in the halls of state government. Sales tax collections jumped 7.2 percent, or $28.8 million, during the first four months of the fiscal year that began July 1.

``So far this year, we've seen strength in our sales tax collections,'' said Sean Ashley, spokesman for the Office of State Finance. ``We're hopeful that it will be a good holiday season.''

The National Retail Federation forecasts a 5.7 percent increase in retail sales for November and December nationwide, the best increase in four years.

The Washington, D.C.-based group estimated that the average buyer in the region that includes Oklahoma will spend $680 this holiday season, more than the national average of $672.

Overall, the NRF is predicting holiday sales of $217.4 billion.

``We base our holiday forecast on the past several months of retail sales,'' said Ellen Tolley, spokeswoman for the NRF. ``It does seem like things are continuing to improve.''

For Bob Benham, a bountiful holiday season will be the crown to an already banner year at Balliet's, Benham's high-end women's clothing store in Oklahoma City.

Benham, chairman of the NRF's policy council, said sales are up 16 percent at Balliet's so far this year.

``It's been a really fun year,'' Benham said. ``There's just so much that is positive in Oklahoma City. I think people reflect that in their spending.

``All the people I talk to are happy with their business. Ours has been extraordinary.''

The nation's improving economy and a growing sense of safety more than two years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks is encouraging people to spend more of what they earn.

``I think people feel more secure,'' Benham said. ``People have built-in gyroscopes. And they really want to get back to normal. People are ready to have some fun and not be so serious.''

In Tulsa, a city hit hard by downturns in the telecommunications and aviation industries, merchants expect an active holiday season, said Bob Ball, an economist and economic research manager for the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce.

``We expect it to be a pretty strong year. We are pretty upbeat,'' Ball said.

Tulsa lost 2,900 manufacturing jobs between August 2002 and August 2003 and has 5,000 fewer jobs than it did just a year ago. Local merchants have suffered because of concern about spending money during poor economic times, Ball said.

The city has forecast a 3.7 percent decline in retail sales for the year.

But voter passage of the Vision 2025 economic incentive and capital improvements program in September made Tulsans more optimistic about the city's future.

``There's probably a little more pent-up spending that can be released,'' Ball said.

The success of major college teams in football-crazy Oklahoma cannot be underestimated when predicting the pace of holiday sales, especially at sports apparel stores.

``It'll always impact the business,'' said Marty Brown, manager of Champ's Sports at Penn Square Mall in Oklahoma City.

The steady sale of caps, sweat shirts, T-shirts and other garments and articles bearing the logos of top-ranked OU and Oklahoma State, ranked No. 23 in the nation, virtually guarantee a successful holiday season, Brown said.

``The Sooners' success always has an effect on business,'' said Palmerton. ``It seems to also feed into other stores and seems to feed into the overall attitude of the retail business as a whole. It creates a positive energy.''

``It seems like everybody is getting a little more comfortable,'' Brown said. ``It seems like they're letting go of some of that money.''

Sean Simpson, vice president of the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, said the crowds that flocked to the grand opening of the Bass Pro Shops store in Bricktown may be a barometer of how other merchants will fare this holiday season.

``You've got 15,000 people who walked through the door the first day. That number would fill the Ford Center,'' Simpson said.

``These people have money to spend and this is a place where they're going to spend it.''