Mrs. Big Picture’s Anecdotal Tales of Holiday Retail

When it comes to most things, I pay very close attention to what
Mrs. Big Picture says. She is, after all, much smarter than me, with gobs
more common sense and people smarts than I could ever hope to have. (I’m
what people derisively call "book smart," which is a polite way to say
that I am a social idiot). The
missus also has a very good antenna about all sorts of things. 

She never asks me to go shopping, cause she knows I hate malls and
crowds. Instead, she says "Let’s go do some economic research." Clever

Anyway, when she relates anecdotes with economic overtones, I pay close attention. This is such a story.

A broken nail led to a visit to the manicurist. The shop was relatively empty, and the gals got to talkin’. At the salon, Mrs. BP asks the salon owner how business is. Michelle responds "Very quiet." The shop has been slow enough that Michelle gets to go Christmas shopping during her lunch. Store traffic and crowds, she points out, are surprisingly sparse, given its less than 2 weeks to the 25th. And everything is on sale, with prices slashed.

One of the other ladies pipes in: She runs the catering arm of a local food store (Bernards) — and business is way off. Bernards is a terrific but very expensive specialty food shop — picture a small but higher end version of Whole Foods. 

A little context: we live on the North Shore of Long Island, in a nice, affluent little town, surrounded by even nicer, more affluent towns. We’re adjacent to Old Brookville (2 acre zoning, Median house value in 2000 was $972,100!), Locust Valley (where Sabrina was filmed) Mill Neck (where the $40 million home of disgraced Global Crossing exec is found). This background is to show that this isn’t a tale of middle class woes.

The story gets me thinking — this is so consistent with what we have heard from from the major retailers, but not what the Commerce Dept. claims — so I start asking around: 

My train commute in is mostly Wall Streeters, Lawyers, Advertising, Bankers. I relate this story to one of the women is regularly sit with. Her answer? Shoes.

"See these pumps with the baby jane straps [like I have a clue]? They are Tahari. Fairly expensive. Got ’em on sale this weekend at Lord & Taylor. 40% off, plus they mailed me a 20% off coupon. Usually about $120-40 for them. I paid $46 bucks."

I speak with my friend, who owns a very high end Audio Video store on Park Avenue. The equipment is gorgeous, and if you ever want a pair of $60,000 speakers, this is the place.

I ask: How’s biz?

"Way way off from last year. We typically see abotu $10-15k in walk in business, plus all the installs we do. Some of those are $100k plus jobs [I’m thinking — 100k? Nice stereo!]. This year, we are seeing $3k a day walk in business. There ar eoccassional spikes, but its nothing remotely like last year."

I ask: What about all the flat panel displays on sale?

"Not our clientele. We only carry super premium — Pioneer Elite [which is the only tv that has ever made me weep, its so gorgeous] and Fujitsu; Our customers are not buying the $999 Panasonic to go with their $30k in Krell Audio and $20k in Kef speakers [hmmm, drool].

He blames — wait for it — the housing slow down. He was doing so many installs into new or renovated condos, Hampton homes and Long Island / Westchester /CT / NJ residences, he could barely keep up. He was booked months in advance.  Today? "We can do an install in 2 weeks."


All the usual caeats about anecdotal tales apply: Perhaps its regional, or this is a non-random sample, biased, skewing one way or another. But these experiences, combined with what we have heard from Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Circuit City, and the truckers, etc., all add up to a Holiday shopping season that may be less than robust.

And, there are only 5 shopping days left until Xmas . . .

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  1. anon commented on Dec 20

    >>>But these experiences, combined with what we have heard from Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Circuit City, and the truckers, etc., all add up to a Holiday shopping season that may be less than robust.

    Fed Ex just had a weak report as well

  2. Chief Tomahawk commented on Dec 20

    Good reporting, BR. Hopefully your readers can post some more insight…

    PS I thought you had ganered some knowledge of women’s shoes from your previous posting…

  3. spencer commented on Dec 20

    Historically the difference between big and small recessions was Xmas. From WW II to 1980 all the big recession included a poor xmas and small recessions did not include xmas.

    Recessions occur when the business community makes a mistake — like planning on a Xmas season that is bigger then what is actually realized leaving them with unwanted inventories.

    Unwanted inventories only occur when someone makes a mistake.

  4. Gary commented on Dec 20

    Jim Rogers is also calling for a recession this year. I know a lot of people dislike Roubini but its pretty hard to discredit Rogers. He points out that cutting prices is a sign of economic weakness. It appears that the Fed is trying to cure the 70’s style problems (war, rising commodities, inflation) with the same 70’s style fix (more and more liquidity). Meanwhile they try to hide the problem by doctoring the data and propping up the markets. Will they avoid the 70’s outcome (stagflation)? Let’s just say I have my doubts as to whether it will work.

  5. Mike commented on Dec 20

    I was in Water Tower Place in Chicago yesterday and was struck by the same experience. Some stores were completely empty. In no store we entered was there a line to checkout.

    The only store that had a substantial line?

    Tiffany, on the second floor (the cheap stuff) had a line for a salesperson that was 20 people long.

  6. LAWMAN commented on Dec 20

    I see large crowds in Western PA. I don’t even drive the main rode home anymore b/c the traffic is so bad due to the shoppers.

    However, the sales this year are absolutely amazing….even moreso than usual.

    Got an 30GB ipod from BBY, which is never on sale, but they have a promotion this week where you get a $20 gift card.

    Went to VS and everything was slashed.

    Went to Bath and Body Works and saved 30%.

    Went to Fashion Bug and everything in the store was marked down twice (the sales ladies were commenting on the fact that EVERYTHING in the store had been marked down at least once….apparently corporate was visiting their store today and they were under strict orders to have everything marked down).

    I mentioned to my wife that I saved, on average, 30% off of everything I bought this year (except the ipod), and that when I went to check out, the prices were actually marked down again at the register. She said that she noticed the same thing…”hidden” markdowns.


    P.S.: I am by no means an old fart, but what’s up with all the kiddies at VS?

  7. Neal commented on Dec 20

    Fiday night:Mall of America-overflow parking lots mostly empty, no police directing traffic, very unlike last year. Monday night:Another regional mall-empty parking in main lots even though new addition to mall occupied existing lots, very unlike last year. Smaller mall-parking within 200 feet of door, very unlike last year. Walmart-lot 1/3 full, piles of toys in the aisles, no lines at checkout, very unlike last year.

  8. bushsux commented on Dec 20

    Just remember that Rogers timing is often off and he is often early, but never wrong. Just ask him. LOL.

  9. KP commented on Dec 20


    After speaking with my own retail expert(the girlfriend), I think the kiddies are being pulled in due to the relationship of VS and the Limited stores. Plus she saids that VS has expanded there product lines to include a broader mix to target a broader age group of shoppers.

  10. Barry Ritholtz commented on Dec 20

    Victoria’s Secret also just had their big TV show — which is essentially a one hour commercial featuring lingerie models . . .

  11. angryinch commented on Dec 20

    A lot of the retail and home refurnishing activity over the past 3-4 years has borrowed a ton of demand from the future, IMO.

    We toured about 40 open homes this fall in our area. We are renting and will likely continue to do so, but thought we’d see what you get for your money (answer: not much.)

    What was striking: nearly every single home had recently been outfitting with upgraded appliances, bathrooms, kitchen counters, etc. Some of these were older homes that hadn’t seen a remodel in decades.

    Given the turnover in properties in the past five years, wouldn’t surprise me if at least 10 years (or more) of demand for these home improvements have been borrowed from the future. I know many folks who have sold their homes since 2003 and who put in fancy new kitchens and bathrooms–expenditures they would never have considered if they weren’t selling their homes.

    I don’t expect demand will fall to zero. There will always be some new business. But to many retailers who focus on this trade, it may FEEL like business has firm support at zero over the next few years.

    In particular, I wouldn’t want to be a granite countertop salesman right now. Is there a home left in America without them? Certainly not in my neck of the woods. They last a pretty long time, I hear.

  12. JB commented on Dec 20

    Lots of sales here in middle America. I always shop for the wife around mid-December and normally I have a coupon or two, but this year everything was marked down in addition to the coupon 30-40%. JJill was dead with everything on sale, AT was moderately busy, ATLoft was by far the busiest and was offering buy one item, get second 50% off. Funny, there were no signs posted indicating the 50% off sale, the sales clerk was walking around telling everyone about it as if it was unplanned.

  13. Aaron commented on Dec 20

    In an earlier post, someone commented that online retailers are rocking and tried to insinuate that online is the reason for the decline of brick-n-mortar. If true, shouldn’t the transports be doing better?

  14. rob commented on Dec 20

    President says we should do more shopping, hmmm.

  15. Fred commented on Dec 20

    I’ve heard the Boca Mall is NUTZ. No parking, and slamming.

  16. ECONOMISTA NON GRATA commented on Dec 20

    “She never asks me to go shopping, cause she knows I hate malls and crowds. Instead, she says “Let’s go do some economic research.” Clever girl.”

    “See these pumps with the baby jane straps [like I have a clue]? They are Tahari. Fairly expensive. Got ’em on sale this weekend at Lord & Taylor. 40% off, plus they mailed me a 20% off coupon. Usually about $120-40 for them. I paid $46 bucks.”

    “[like I have a clue]?”

    Really… Barry? As we recall you seemed to be quite the experrt on these matters… Perhaps you only specialize in ladies boots and then I must agree with you Bloomies on Lex is kinda special….

    As it relates to retail sales, we’re seeing the same thing down here in Palm Beach…. I was on Worth Ave. yesterday afternoon and you could have heard a pin drop in the street.


  17. WW commented on Dec 20


    Didnt really insinuate anything, just wanted to double check if there is something missing in the big picture of retail. I dont understand the numbers myself.
    Obviously FedEx is missing some business this year. But they only ship half the parcels as UPS(9.8Mill to 21Mill) and there is still USPS.
    Maybe somebody can shed a light on how much business online orders are taking away from brick n mortar retailers?

  18. Barry Ritholtz commented on Dec 20

    Looks like an intreiguing mix:

    WSJ: Holiday Lights: Retail’s Bright Stars, Dim Bulbs

    With six shopping days until Christmas, Thomson Financial says that, with the exception of maybe Wal-Mart (and we would add, the Gap) a lot of retailers are on track to “smash last year’s December performance.”

    Drug stores and discounters (ex-Wal-Mart) look set to shine bright, while the specialty sector may be the string’s dim bulb. Thomson expects drugstore same-store sales to climb 7.9% this month, with Walgreen on top at 10%. Thomson also called out J.C. Penney, for its success in introducing the Sephora brand into stores and reaching the teen market.

    Other retailers Thomson cited for their star potential are: Costco, Target, American Eagle, Bebe, Limited, Federated and Nordstrom. At the bottom of Santa’s same-store sack, according to Thomson’s projections, are: Sharper Image, Pacific Sunwear, Hot Topic, Pier One, Gap and Wal-Mart.

    Most major retailers are expected to report December sales on Jan. 4.

  19. Robert ben Kline commented on Dec 20

    I’ve been doing the same survey in Palm Beach County, with mixed results: The jeweler in the flea market says: “business is good. The empty stores in the surrounding mall is normal.” The salesman in the Home Depot Designer Store says: “still getting plenty of $100k kitchen upgrade orders. No recession here.” The Crafts and ‘slock’ store in a neighborhood mall is closing. I haven’t asked them how is business, but where I thought there was weakness and bothered to ask, the people involved have told me not so.

  20. advsys commented on Dec 20

    Now this is the kind of comments I love about this Blog. Meaningful data and reasonable discussion.

    Sorry I can’t add anything. My holidays started last friday and so my shopping was all done a couple of weeks ago.

    I can hear the January debates now. Gift cards! The weather! Retailers blew it with early discounts! January will save us!

  21. VennData commented on Dec 20

    I’ve been watching the CNBC ticker the last couple of weeks and it looks to me like everyone’s buying stocks, not stuff. It’s an information economy. )

  22. JWC commented on Dec 20

    The only place I went to that did not have big sales and discounts was American Eagle. Still, I only was behind one person to check out. Kohles had big discounts and sales, and a line. But I went on senior citizen day which is always busy. (I don’t know how they can have a profit with 50% off plus another 15% for seniors.) Other places were not particularly busy and there were no lines.

  23. ksh commented on Dec 20

    I was at Tysons Corner Mall in VA last night and Pentagon City Mall this past weekend. I would say 60-70% of the stores had sales going on. Of course, 40% off can always be marked against a higher base price.

    What I found most interesting was the buy $50 in merchandise, get a $10 gift certificate type deals. My guess are retailers are trying to front load their sales expecting most of the gift cards to be redeemed after the new year, maybe to mop up excess inventory. Also the LLBean in Tysons Corner was open 24hr a day through the 23rd. That doesn’t sound like they are working from a position of strength. What threw me was that at least four stores were looking for sales help. I haven’t quite figured out what that might mean.

  24. emd commented on Dec 20

    i spend about the same every christmas. i went shopping 3 days this week and was not overly impressed with the store traffic. granted, i went during the first 1-2hrs the stores were open on saturday and sunday but it still seemed light for a wknd. some stores relatively busy (but not “mobbed”) while others were DEAD.

    everything i bought was on sale.

  25. emd commented on Dec 20

    “What I found most interesting was the buy $50 in merchandise, get a $10 gift certificate type deals. My guess are retailers are trying to front load their sales expecting most of the gift cards to be redeemed after the new year, maybe to mop up excess inventory.”

    They’re also counting on you spending above the gift card amount at the time of redemption. The card front loads some sales and gets you into the store for more sales at a later date.

  26. K-Dawg commented on Dec 20

    Different story here in L.A. Roads are packed. Shops and parking lots are packed. Discounts ? Nothing compelling. Course, the L.A. housing market is trailing the rest of the country by about 6 months. Maybe next Xmas we’ll see the fallout.

  27. Lord commented on Dec 20

    I guess there is a shortage of investment bankers.

  28. Josh commented on Dec 20

    I have 2: Target has Valentine’s day merchandise out (pull a-head sales?) and I was at a super walmart and for a Monday night, it was like any other Monday night. You would never have known it was a week before x-mas. I actually walked up to a cashier who was busy cleaning her register area.

  29. Humbug commented on Dec 20

    Anecdotal evidence, guaranteed not worth more than you paid for it:

    1) I consulted with my local shopping expert, my sister-in-law. She’s a Macy’s shopper in SF (this woman *literally* shops every day at her lunch break). She says that the prices are great – 50% off of 75%, etc. (I’m making up the numbers here) but it’s all the same picked-over merchandise. She reports they are not displaying any new inventory. All of the “normal” sizes were gone weeks ago so the sales are all on XXXL sizes that very few people fit. This was when we were still 2 weeks out from Christmas Eve.
    Take from this what you will.

    2) My father made what I thought was an interesting observation: In the past boom, bragging rights came from buying and displaying the Big Names. Polo shirts, Gucci outfits, etc. People would even buy affordable items from the Big Name retailers just to flaunt the logoed bags.

    He notes that now its the opposite. Target is the most popular name out there and shopper actually brag amongst themselves about the “great deals” they found at the discount stores.

    Wonder if there is some correlation with economic trends here?

  30. matt m. commented on Dec 20

    But don’t we hear the same analysis every year? Pulled out ’05’s December research…guess what…”steep discounting…1/2 full parking lots…empty restaurants” etc..
    Seems I remember the same for 2002-04. I don’t know,I just don’t think you can make profitable trading decisions on this info.

    Interesting chatter…I guess. I shopped online for 75% of the gifts…up from 50% last year. What does that mean in the trading world? Probably nothing.

  31. Michael Carne commented on Dec 20

    Mr. BP, this was posted on the Housing Panic blog. Don’t shop in Joisy!

    Dec. 20 (Bloomberg) — One New York wife is getting a $50,000-plus diamond ring thanks to hubby’s Wall Street bonus. An executive is giving $1 million in private jet time, or 150 hours, so his family won’t have to fly commercial. And plenty of $7,000 mink coats and $20,000 necklaces are being boxed up, too.

    “I haven’t seen such excess displays of wealth and extravagance during the holidays since the 1980s,” said Samantha von Sperling, a New York-based image consultant and personal shopper. “This is the most prosperous, most lavish, most extravagant season I’ve ever seen.”

    Here is the reason why NJ real estate is holding up so well. Record bonuses this year.

  32. Jason M commented on Dec 20

    Anecdotal report from Los Angeles:

    I was at The Grove last night to do some shopping. The Grove is arguably the most high-end mall in Los Angeles. It’s outdoors and feels a lot like the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

    The Grove is very convenient to Beverly Hills, Hancock Park, West Hollywood, where median home values are in the 1.5 million dollar range. I’ve usually see a celebrity when I go there.

    I got there last night and the outdoor area was packed with people.

    I went into the Apple Store, and it too was very crowded.

    Weirdest thing though: I looked at the register, and it was EMPTY. There were four Apple employees standing there with their arms crossed. I was incredulous. This was the Tuesday 6 days before Christmas at 7PM. The registered stayed empty for 5 minutes.

    I walked back outdoors, and realized that a lot of the bustle outside was people lining up to take their kids to see Santa. The grove has huge (three story) “Santa House,” not to mention a fifty foot Christmas tree and a Santa & Reindeer flying overhead, plus fake snow and the whole bit.

    I realized that The Grove was a destination for family Christmas stuff, but it didn’t seem to have a lot of buying going on.

    An larger informal survery revealed sales at Banana Republic, Nordstroms & Anthropologie. The only place with a long line at the register was Cost Plus World Market.

    The Apple Store was a whollop though. That was spooky.

  33. joe commented on Dec 20

    Barry, your buddy owns Park Avenue Audio? I love that place. I was in there the other day, looking to pick up the Pioneer Elite and there was a waiting list. I was surprised that there was a wait for what I called “the most expensive plasma”. the salesguy laughed and pointed at a tv behind me. 42″ for 10K. Amazing. Also, did anyone see in the Journal today that flat screens are now like 25% of holiday shopping??

    I was at Short Hills Mall yesterday walking the stores, and the discounting was noticeable. Sale signs everywhere. Bloomingdale’s was busy, but Saks, Neiman’s and Nordstrom’s didn’t seem that full. The Apple store on the other hand was jammed. 3 hour wait at the genius bar.

  34. Mike B commented on Dec 20

    Austin is booming, but we also have an upticking housing market right now.

  35. metroplexual commented on Dec 20

    Jason M.

    Where could they fit all that at the Grove by the center grass area? Or at the ed of the trooley line?

    The Toy store would be logical but no room?

  36. anon commented on Dec 20

    DC is in flat-out overdrive. Always-packed malls (Tyson’s in particular, Pentagon City as well) are approaching critical mass, cops are directing traffic even on weekdays…it’s a zoo.

  37. Barry Ritholtz commented on Dec 20

    My last trip to the malls — everything was busy — parking lots mostly full, lots and lots of people around

    The key question is are the shoppers spending?

  38. anderl commented on Dec 20

    More Anecdotal Tales Barry,

    A few years back during the 4th of July the family got together. Everyone came in from Alaska, MA, CT, NY and we all sat down to eat and talk, talk and eat. The party was lively even at the diner table up until the time dessert and coffee were served and everyone was desperate to take a notch back on the belt.

    People were relaxed, laid back. The sugar high is gone and the alcohol has since been fully steeped in the body. If you asked me to play game of touch football before dinner I would jump at the chance. The energy is there. After dinner well I saw a tackle coming into the sideline chairs where I was sitting and I debated whether I should exert the energy to get out of the way.

    It isn’t so much that the rich don’t have the money. They just don’t know what to do with it at this point. When you bought a bigger place you have more room for stuff. So you buy a lot of stuff. Now you have no more room for stuff. You either don’t buy so much stuff or buy a bigger place.

  39. jj commented on Dec 20

    Just walked out of Saks on 5th Ave… pretty busy in there but not that many people buying , bags were lightly filled , and I was a bit surprised at the discounts already posted

  40. Russ Winter commented on Dec 20

    Barry, think we have a situation where the American consumer and society has become extremely bifurcated, measured by a Gini coefficient approaching Mexico.

    This is clouding the issue, because you have an elite getting a big pay off from Bubble economics, while others are hurt from the inflationary fumes from the plutocrats. I see where stock options exercises alone added 11% to DPI in 2006.

  41. Vega commented on Dec 20

    Awesome post, Barry. Thanks!

  42. JL commented on Dec 20

    Barry, I live in Roswell, GA outside of Atlanta. The local mall was less than crowded with heavy discounts especially at Macy’s. I know a few managers at the Macy’s and sales are suppose to be great, but you have to question earnings. I purchased men’s calvin jeans for $19.99 after the sales and coupons.

  43. MidAmerica commented on Dec 21

    Yes, everything is on sale. No, I don’t want any of it. It’s great to hear that upscale shoppers in urban areas are finding great clothes at great prices, but in my area of NC the traditional middle class fashion brands have been practically eliminated from department stores. Taking their place are multitudes of store brands, off brands, and newly ruined old brands — all imported and made of cheap, undesirable materials. I used to be a shopper when choosing from all the great options was fun. Now spending hours looking and finding nothing to buy is discouraging, especially since I don’t “need” anything anyway. Giveaway prices were an incentive the last few years that allowed me to try this stuff and to know I wouldn’t want more if they gave it away. And I’m not the only one–racks of summer clothes 75% off + 50% off are still sitting. We miss our mid-level, mid-quality, middle class brands. Even half our shoe selection is plastic now!! It’s like they snuck it all in, priced it the same, and thought nobody would notice…

  44. Bedemere commented on Dec 21

    I went to the Westfield Mall in La Jolla, CA on Sunday night and the place was dead, dead, dead. I mean it was spooky. I had my pick of parking spots. Sales people were standing around with nothing to do. I figured, OK, this is it, the end has finally arrived. I’ll get up in the morning and short anything and everything they’ll lend me. Then I overheard one sales clerk ask another if he knew the score of the game. Suddenly, I realized the San Diego Chargers were playing and LT was breaking records while I shopped. Oops! Serves me right for not following football.

    Subsequent research has been inconclusive. Costco was pretty crowded (had to wait 5 minutes to park) at mid-day on Tuesday, but there was no wait to check out. Target looked like an average Saturday at 2 p.m. on Tuesday. Who knows what it all means. I bought almost everything online 3 weeks ago.

  45. Jason M commented on Dec 21


    the tree is in the center grassy party behind the fountain with the santa flying over it.

    santa’s house is down the way, near banana republic, where the trolly usually runs.

    i’m sure this is fascinating to everyone else.

    /grove thread.

  46. HerbieS commented on Dec 22

    anecdotal evidence defines as that evidence that your brain wants to see and rejects the evidence that your brain doesn t want to see, if you are a ber on the economt you see empty parking lots. if you are a bull, you are sooo tired of standing in these lines. its a zoo. conclusion? here can be none.

  47. 42 commented on Dec 22

    I don’t shop, but last night driving home past the Square One mall on US1 here near Boston it was a complete zoo. cars queued up to enter the lot, some entrances closed, cops directing traffic, etc. but all the nights before that were status quo.

  48. j d ess commented on Dec 23

    anecdotally, we’ve heard of 2 people being mugged in the past 4 weeks, my car stereo was stolen and an apartment in our building was robbed. ah, city living. i heard on the radio that crime is up this year, with robberies up the most. the soc prof interviewed said robbery is the “canary in the coal mine,” the copper, the leading indicator of crime rates.

  49. Christopher commented on Dec 25

    Barry – You know the guy who owns the audio place on Park Ave? Hook a brother up! I’m in the market for some audiophile stuff.

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