Satchelnomics: Shopping like it's not so hot

As the yachts set sail for Hobart and the Australian cricket team faced India in the First Test at the MCG, crowds energised by Christmas feasts donned FitFlops, Birkenstocks and Crocs for the ultimate test of resilience: the Boxing Day Sales. 

The gift wrap only just starting to settle into bins, thoughts typically turn to bargains and many happy returns (did you keep the receipt?), which seems – in hindsight, maybe – an ungracious thing, to have received and thought, 'I could do better'. Oh, well. I did it, perhaps you did, too?

"How low can you go?", you might have asked, passing store after store heralding the season of red signage that takes place from Boxing Day and extends right through to the new year. But this year the stores were pipped by themselves with discount cards and catalogues appearing in the post long before Christmas Day.

Country Road's end-of-season sale gave us selected styles for 60% off with a further 25% off to be expected for four days between Boxing Day and December 29. If you shopped at Sussan's before December 15, perhaps you would have received a $25 gift card to spend in store on significantly reduced stock, too? Offers of discounts on top of your discounts with incentives thrown in for good measure are everywhere. This tempered the excitement somewhat about scooping up something for a steal.

And did you also notice the crowds weren't nearly as crowd-y? This year, on the shop floors, there's significantly less frenzied activity. Tempered by a topsy-turvy economic year, floods and that uncertain feeling that things might get worse before better (reports out of Europe signal recessionary trends), people have tightened right up.  

Others weary from the Christmas shop can't see themselves catching up. A line extending right out the door to the Commonwealth Bank at the mall I visited suggested financial arrangements were being made. One bloke I encountered at an ATM lamented, "When is it going to stop? I still have gifts to buy and I'm sick of it". God loves a cheerful giver; it's hard to cheer when your credit is crunched.

Some stores, and shoppers, are staying defiantly upbeat. Myer has said two million people have passed through its doors nationwide since Christmas. "From a sales perspective and movement of stock it's been a good start and within our expectations," a spokesman told The Australian. Movement of stock doesn't necessarily equate to soaring profits with margins trimmed by all the discounting.

The Australian Retailers Association remains hopeful – sales are expected to tip $55 billion in the week from Boxing Day. But ask Jerry Norman, the voice of realism, and he's quick to say the malls will see closures in the near future as proprietors feel the strain of rising rents and wages and increasingly more shoppers turn to the 'net (good news for builders of warehouses, logistical staff and the postal service, too, which will help to lessen the impact on the shifting economy). Did you hear that discount department store Sears is closing 120 stores in the U.S.?

Samara and Jean at Danny's by the Billabong Cafe, Pacific Fair
Samara, 20, worked at a T-Bar store before turning to real estate six months ago. Out shopping with her grandmother, Jean, and taking a moment's reprieve in a shady spot over morning tea, she says the store was always quiet. Today, however, both women have had success: Jean has purchased two tops and Samara a Canon SLR camera from JB Hi Fi reduced from $1300 to $999.

Years ago, Jean remembers people would park around her place just to get access to the sales. Now Pacific Fair, her closest shopping mall, has free car park spaces. Robina Town Centre has taken foot traffic away from the AMP Capital-owned centre, but it's more than that. "Everyone I know is struggling this year with the exception of a few rich people," quips Jean.

If the rich can keep the economy afloat in the meantime, we may all be cheery givers come Christmas 2012. But in this cautionary, contemplative climate, perhaps the holiday shopping toll will at least be less than previous years? Economic indicators in the new year shall tell.

Girl With a Satchel