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Increase in retail sales over holidays is 'OK'

A 4 percent increase in retail sales during the past holiday season, compared with the same period in 2001, may not seem like much, but John Thackeray saw optimism in that figure.

Thackeray, state director for Idaho, Montana and Utah for the International Council of Shopping Centers, on Friday called that boost in non-auto retail sales "OK."

"It's not robust, but OK for a down market," he told a crowd of nearly 300 gathered for the ICSC's Mountain States Idea Exchange in Salt Lake City. "It shows that even with a down economy, retail is still OK, it's still a good business to be in."

Last year featured a lot of store closures, but the 5,814 that closed up shop represented a 17.4 percent decrease from the 7,041 closures in 2001. Further, Kmart, Ames and Service Merchandise accounted for 14 percent of the 17.4 percent figure, he said.

Shopping center occupancy rates also were strong, hovering around 90 percent. "Ten percent vacancy across the board is pretty good right now for our industry," Thackeray said.

The industry also continues to see large mergers, such as the one by Salt Lake-based JP Realty with General Growth Properties.

Indications about 2003 are that January sales were up, February's were hurt by bad weather and that March's year-over-year growth will be "modest," he said.

"The sailing is not smooth," he said of the industry. "It's OK, but it's bumpy."