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In the U.S., Christmas remains a great divide

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That is not to say that luxury consumers have abandoned the lessons of the recession. Coach, for example, reported that sales in North America grew by double digits during its most recent quarter - but only after it lowered prices of its signature handbags and leather goods by 10 percent. Still, the company said customers' plans to buy in the future were at the highest level in two years.

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"I honestly think people are tired of the recession," said Paula Reynolds, 56, a photographer who was holiday shopping at Towson on a recent afternoon. "I think people are ready to move on, but I think they're being cautious."

Reynolds bought clothes for her son at the Gap, two skirts for herself at Ann Taylor and nosed around Tiffany's for a new wedding ring for her husband, who lost his while surfing in the Pacific Ocean. She said more people are calling to buy her high-end prints, which she takes as a hopeful sign. And as a retail industry veteran, Reynolds said, she understood that "the more we shop, the better it is."

Economists say the biggest obstacle to a robust recovery is the high unemployment rate, which has hit workers with little education and low household income the hardest. The jobless rate for workers without a high school diploma is 15.7 percent - well above the national average and triple the rate for college graduates, according to government data. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate among households that had been making less than $50,000 is 15 percent, well above the national average of 9.8 percent, according to consulting firm Bain & Co.

These are the forces working against 27-year-old Chanise Lee of the District, who holds a high school diploma and has been looking for work for three months after losing her job at a nursing home when the owner went bankrupt.

"It doesn't feel like I'm out of the recession," she said. "I couldn't say what we need to do with the economy, but I know I need employment."

Lee visits the nonprofit Dress for Success almost every day while her kids are at school for help sprucing up her resume and finding business clothes for interviews. She has applied for about 50 jobs and secured four callbacks - including one last week for a position as a hotel concierge - but she is worried that nothing will materialize before the holidays are over.

Her game plan for Christmas Day is to distract her three young children with coloring sheets and a hearty breakfast when they wake up so they don't notice how few gifts are under the tree.

"By the time all of that's done, then the toys are not as exciting," Lee said. "I kinda take their focus away from the presents and back to where it needs to be."


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