Economy • Stores are packed, but sales are down amid worries over the "fiscal cliff."
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Corridors were full and shopping bags were countless in area malls, but consumers on the last Saturday of the holiday shopping season appeared to temper their spending because of the weak economy. Some said they worried about the impact of the so-called fiscal cliff stalemate between Congress and the White House over the U.S. budget.
With sales disappointing so far, retailers are depending heavily on the final three days before Christmas for a boost in business. The period between Thanksgiving weekend and Christmas can account for 40 percent of a store's annual revenue.
Yet, despite deep discounts at many shops in the Fashion Place and City Creek Center malls, many shoppers said the wrangling in Washington and touchy economic conditions in Utah, where unemployment is relatively low, are causing them to hold back.
"The economy the way it is ... we just have to watch our spending. You have to be more careful," said Bea Santillanez, who drove from West Wendover, Nev., Saturday to shop at Fashion Place in Murray for her grandchildren. A retiree, Santillanez plans to give cash gifts to her daughters and presents to the grandkids. The men in her family, though, won't get much this year.
"They're not getting everything they'd like to get," she said.
ShopperTrak, which analyzes customer traffic at U.S. stores, cut its holiday sales forecast Wednesday because of slow sales. It now expects sales to be up 2.5 percent to $257.7 billion, down from the 3.3 percent estimate it issued in September.
The "fiscal cliff" impasse in Washington was on the minds of numerous shoppers.
Liesl Barnardt, 41, is cutting Christmas spending because she and her husband want to buy a house next year. But their plan to purchase in the south end of the Salt Lake Valley could be upended if the budget battle isn't resolved before Jan. 1, when higher taxes and huge spending cuts are set to kick in.
"We are renting at the moment and waiting to see what happens with interest rates," Barnardt said. "We think [the deadlock] will affect the interest rates if there will still be tax [deductions] for first-time buyers."
Despite the public disquiet about taxes, there was no shortage of shoppers in Salt Lake City on Saturday, and the bags that many carried were laden with merchandise.
"Take a look around the mall," said Bob Messersmith, a City Creek Center shopper who flew in from Minneapolis with his wife to spend the holiday with their son and his family in Utah.
"The stores are filled. Most importantly, the lines are long," said Messersmith, 70. "I've had to wait to pay for purchases with three or four people ahead of me, and I don't remember that last year."
Maddi Rowley, 16, said the Fashion Place kiosk where she sells skin-care products is doing brisk business. Most of her customers are men, typically ages 45 to 55, who are shopping for their wives. Their willingness to shop may be related to the improved economy along the Wasatch Front, an observation she's heard from her parents, who own a real estate company and a hair salon.
Their businesses are up, too, Rowley said.
"It's not as rushed as last year," she said. "It's more relaxed. People are more willing to spend."
Yet there is anxiety that President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, haven't reached a deal on how to avert the fiscal cliff.
"It's frustrating. I don't even like to talk about it," said Nancy Ericksen, 59, who has moderated some Christmas spending because of the impasse. "You just don't know what it's going to be like after the first of the year."