Holiday spending

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(HOST) The holiday season is now well underway, but commentator Tim McQuiston says that it’s still hard to predict how strong retail sales will be this year.

(MCQUISTON) On Black Friday, I was driving back from Boston very early in the morning. So early was it that it was still black out. And black ice on the highway.

A lot of the talk on the radio was about the mad Christmas rush that officially kicked off that morning. Black Friday is a grim term for the day after Thanksgiving. It represents the day that retail America turns a profit. Get it? It is also, as legend has it, “the busiest shopping day of the year.” And you know what? Sometimes it is. But sometimes it’s one of the Saturdays before Christmas.

Later I learned that Black Friday was a modest success. Sales were up one percent over last year’s torrid spending. Meanwhile, economic indicators are up across the board, in Vermont and nationally, from the unemployment rate to wages. Still, there’s a general sense of economic pessimism. So what gives in this season of giving?

The Vermont Business Roundtable has come up with some data that point us towards a possible explanation.

The Roundtable is a nonprofit public interest organization made up of CEO’s from across the state. Every five years they release their “Quality of Life Study.” The most recent report just came out.

Now, when people are optimistic about their finances, they allow themselves the luxury to focus on more value-added issues. When they’re pessimistic, they’re concerned about having a job after the year-end layoffs are announced. And the latest study suggests that Vermonters are most concerned about health care and job security right now – while in the previous study, released in 2000, we were concerned about education and the environment.

While the Roundtable points out that Vermont’s quality of life is right at the top of the nation, our collective anxiety is also higher than in the previous report.

This is how I would explain it. In the late ’90s, the recession from earlier in the decade was still fresh in our minds. It was a dismal economic downturn. As the economy expanded, people started to feel better. As the proverbial rising tide lifted all boats, we rode a wave of optimism.

Well, now, along with the many social concerns since 9/11, the businessperson with the well paying job is wondering whether he’ll still have that job after the next corporate “right-sizing.” He looks at his pay stub and sees that his health insurance is as high as his mortgage. He sees his mutual fund portfolio losing almost as much money as he’s putting in.

OK, so how do I explain the long checkout lines? Well, Christmas is coming, after all. And remember, those wage and employment numbers are still good, even if we’re fretting over the future.

This is Timothy McQuiston.

Timothy McQuiston is editor of Vermont Business Magazine.

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