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A red, white and blue holiday

Star-spangled themes will be the norm this season, as retailers wrap themselves in patriotism to connect with shoppers.

By MARK ALBRIGHT

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 28, 2001


PINELLAS PARK -- After shipping 474 Frosty the Snowman figures to Mervyn's department stores, Roger Barganier turned his attention to a new Christmas order for a Manhattan department store's window display.

"It's going to be very patriotic, Victorian style. You know, lots of bunting and gold eagles," said the president of Creative Arts Unlimited, where 28 employees build displays for retailers such as Macy's and FAO Schwarz. "Unquestionably, thanks to terrorism, this is going to be a very red, white and blue Christmas."

Revising window displays shows how retailers are scurrying to prepare for a different holiday season. The nation is on edge after the recent terrorist attacks and the looming prospects of war and recession. So retailers are rethinking everything from what to stock to how to promote their goods during the important selling season.

A lot is on the line for the holidays. Retailers get up to a third of their annual sales and half of their profits in the final two months of the year. Experts such as Retail Forward Inc. predict a minimal gain of 1.5 percent in retail sales for the fourth quarter, down from last Christmas season's 4.5 percent gain. So retailers know they have to get customers in a buying mood just to get their share.

Patriotism is seen as a safe choice. So many in the store decorating industry expect to see military bands playing Christmas carols and trees draped in patriotic colors. A recent uptick in the sales of red, white and blue apparel means those items will get greater display space.

A walk through Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg offers a peep at what to expect for Christmas.

Fletcher Music is filled with helium balloons in patriotic colors. There's an Uncle Sam hat on top of the Finish Line marquee. JCPenney has two prominently positioned racks full of United We Stand T-shirts for $9.99 and a display of underwear in stars and stripes. Red and white stripes are abundant at each entrance to Burdines, where six main aisle displays feature red, white and blue apparel.

"The overriding theme in the stores will be patriotic this year," said Tom Williams, a spokesman for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. "It's Halloween, but already we've got bunting and flags everywhere. You will see more. The stores will have a Christmas theme, but it will be very clear that the country is aware of itself and aware of what's at stake. We're in the U.S. of A."

Big chains have told their buyers to review all their merchandise plans for holidays.

"We're trying to be sensitive to all that has happened and what still could happen," said Carey Watson, vice president of advertising for Miami-based Burdines. "It means we have to be a lot more flexible about making plans and changing them."

Saks Fifth Avenue pulled a white-gold bracelet of the Manhattan skyline from a catalog because it included the outline of the World Trade Center. Given fears about biological warfare, some toy retailers are evaluating whether to stock Pox, a handheld Hasbro electronic game in which players use wireless signals to direct "aliens" to zap each other with infectious diseases.

Another question is Project Gotham, a Microsoft product created for the Xbox game console. In the game players speed through Manhattan streets dodging hazards with the twin towers in the background.

At Creative Arts Unimited, however, the extra window display work comes at a critical time. Even before the Sept. 11 attacks, the company's main business -- building displays for retailers and theme parks -- was down by a third because of the economic slowdown.

The company has been trying to diversify into custom furniture and trolley cars used by tour operators.

"We expanded our building and we're set to hire more people because we had several orders for trolleys," Bargainer said. "Now that's on hold now because the tourist industry was hit so hard."

-- Information from the New York Times was used in this report. Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

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