Stores won't buy into rebound talk

Retail insiders are betting that it could be 12 to 18 months before consumer spending returns to pre-recession levels.

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By Parija B. Kavilanz, senior writer

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NEW YORK ( -- You can't sell the nation's retailers on the idea that the economy will rebound soon.

Despite some economists' forecasts that the recession could be over by the end of summer, industry watchers say merchants are betting that it's going to be 12 to 18 months before consumer spending gets even close to pre-recession levels.

That's significant because no real rebound in the economy is possible without a pick-up in consumer spending, which accounts for two-thirds of economic growth.

"Anyone who thinks that consumers will return to carefree shopping by September, you have to wonder what they're smoking," said Paco Underhill, an expert on consumer psychology and CEO of retail-focused consulting form Envirosell.

Slashing orders: Merchants have dramatically slashed their orders for new merchandise that they expect to sell in the summer and later this year.

One sign of that, February's volume of retail imports -- such as clothes, shoes and home furnishings -- dropped to the lowest level in seven years, according to the latest Port Tracker report from the National Retail Federation (NRF) and forecasting firm Global Insight.

Import volume for March is expected to be down 19.7% from a year earlier, with April 22% lower, the report said.

Retailers typically order new goods six to eight months in advance of when they expect to sell the products in stores. Declining orders indicate that sellers don't see a pick-up in sales in the coming months.

Craig Shearman, NRF's vice president for government affairs, agreed.

"The retail import volume is a leading indicator of how much retailers think they can sell," Shearman said. "So a lower amount [of volume] is a clear indication that retailers think sales will be down in the spring and summer."

Recovery in 2010? Retail buyers, professionals who help stores select and buy merchandise, are bracing for a tough year.

Although Underhill expects improvement in housing starts and consumer lending by the fall, he cautions that no one should expect consumers "will party like it's 1999."

"It will be another year before spending truly picks up," he said.

"I've talked to fellow buyers and some have cut [orders] by more than half," said Andy Beauchamp, found of the National Association of Retail Buyers, a non-profit buyers' networking group that lists Macy's (M, Fortune 500) among its members.

Because of the economic uncertainty, Beauchamp said some buyers have stopped importing certain items and turned to domestic vendors to better manage inventory levels.

"I was a junior buyer in the 1980s and I remember that it took 18 months before I saw strength come back in spending," he said. "Even after 9/11, it took nine months before confidence returned and people were spending well again."

Experts don't expect consumers to come back to stores on a spree. "Our retail culture is in a major transition. Conspicuous consumption is now bad manners," Underhill said.

But if there is a big consumer comeback, the stores may be out of luck.

"A friend of mine who is a senior buyer for Macy's is terrified," said Beauchamp. "She's being told to keep inventory low. So what happens if sales pick up in the fourth quarter and she has nothing to sell?"

"Usually in a strong economy, vendors can ramp up production quickly and turnaround a new order in 10 days," Beauchamp said. "But the economy has made vendors cautious and many don't have the resources to do such a fast turnaround."

Besides the big chain stores, Main Street mom-and-pop sellers are also "ordering products very close to their need," said Ed Butler, founder of the Butler Group, which represents wholesale manufacturers and importers of gift and home decor items.

"Their orders are running about 20% less than last year," Butler said. "I think this level will continue in the second half of the year."

"We don't see a change [in spending levels] until the first quarter of 2010," Butler said. To top of page

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