What retail sales really say about the economy

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Speculation on just how bad holiday sales will be for retailers is rampant. Predictions, recent sales figures, the number of imports coming through our nation's ports -- the oddsmakers are tallying up the data but still can't reach a conclusion.

Holiday sales predictions are making about as much sense as Congress these days. But with September retail sales figures announced Thursday and Black Friday approaching, the punditry is in high gear.

The recently released financials don't do anything to clear the matter up. Some retailers posted small gains, some losses, but the overall takeaway is positive since even the stores that had sales decline in September, like Target beat Wall Street's expectations. They lost less money than anyone thought. (Nowhere near as harsh as last year's declines
but the drop in sales for September 2009 is on top of the double digit declines experienced in September 2008.)

All of this leads to lots of guessing about upcoming holiday sales. Mostly, experts agree sales will be disappointing this year. Just how disappointing is impossible to say. The National Retail Federation expects sales to decline 1%, and that's one of the more optimistic estimates.

We also know that consumers overall are using credit less, which can hurts sales of bigger ticket items like electronics and jewelry. And we have gotten better at waiting for deals, buying later in the season and taking advantage of declining prices the closer we get to Christmas.

But there's something indefinable about the holidays this year that doesn't come out in the numbers: a real desire for things to be better. If the rest of America is anything like me -- underemployed or unemployed, making do for two years without buying new, and watching every penny -- the temptation to spring for something nice for someone else is hard to resist.

Maybe we'll be buying less than two or three years ago, but hopefully we're buying smarter. We will be buying, I predict. Its sentiment doesn't really show up in sales data, no matter what the pundits say.
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