Midwest Celebrates Not-So-Sweet 'Sweetest Day'

Forget the battle for a swing state's coveted electoral votes. Senators John McCain and Barack Obama would do well to avoid Ohio this Saturday. The potentially sticky situation? Sweetest Day, a sort of autumnal Valentine's Day celebration that marks the kickoff of the holiday retail season in some states. Given the dismal economy, this year people may be feeling a bit sour.

If you haven't heard of Sweetest Day, you're probably not from the Midwest. Since 1921, when a consortium of enterprising candy company executives decreed that gifts should be given on the third Saturday of October, the so-called "sweetest day of the year" has typically been a sign of good profits to come for greeting-card companies, florists and chocolatiers throughout the Great Lakes region. This year, not so much.

"Sweetest Day is going to cause some heartburn, I think," says Reginald Johnson, an Akron, Ohio, flower deliveryman for the last 15 years. "We already see our orders are down." Consider it a harbinger for the rest of the nation. October so far has brought nothing but bad news for retailers hoping against hope that the shopping season might not be a total bust. In its annual survey of consumer holiday spending intention, NPD Group Inc., a national market research group, said Tuesday that 26 percent of consumers surveyed planned to spend less this year.

In September alone, a wide range of indicators, from manufacturing to car sales, showed declines. Department-store chains such as J.C. Penney and Nordstrom, meanwhile, have advised analysts to lower earnings expectations. Though investors, regulators and politicians alike hoped for some relief last Monday when stocks initially rallied, by Wednesday, the Rolaids had come out again as the market nosedived on reports that back-to-school spending in September had dropped more than expected. (Despite the Dow's up-and-down week, the index saw its best weekly gain in more than five years, though the economy isn't yet out of the woods.) With credit drying up, more than 750,000 fewer U.S. jobs out there than last Christmas and unemployment expected to increase, the worst is likely yet to come. "Economic activity will fall short of potential for a time," is how Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke put it Wednesday.

Sands Bellizi, an alpaca rancher in Yerington, Nevada, can vouch for that. This year, her family's holiday meals will be potluck. And she and her extended clan have decided to only give gifts to the "five remaining young kids in the family," and those gifts will be inexpensive. "We've decided to just enjoy each others' company." For those consumers who are planning to spend, strategy is key. Karla Swatek, an author and publicist in Carlsbad, Calif., is intent on cashing in all of her retail chits. "With us, the mantra this fall is mileage, rewards points, coupons," she says. "Who knows when the corporations will freeze them like our bank did with our equity line of credit? Use it before you lose it."

And while no one is predicting that Santa will take the year off, at best retailers might find themselves dreaming of a flat Christmas. "For the first time, I am predicting flat to declining sales for the holiday season," says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for the NPD Group. "With consumers already saying they plan to spend less, stores with lean inventories, those inventories on sale soon as they hit the floor and tightening credit for both for businesses and consumers, where can growth come from?"

Blogger Abigail Richards has been trying to look on the bright side. "These last few months have been a trying time for many families. Celebrating Sweetest Day may be exactly what the doctor ordered in this situation," she wrote earlier this week. "Why not get the family together and enjoy the day with these low cost alternatives?" like going to the park, frolicking in a pumpkin patch or taking a brisk fall walk.

Counters Reginald Johnson, the flower deliveryman, "That sounds nice, but none of that helps pay my rent." Maybe this year, Midwesterners should celebrate Bittersweet Day.

Midwest Celebrates Not-So-Sweet 'Sweetest Day' | Business