IT APPEARS that the fortunes, hopes and dreams of everyone in this country this Christmas are based on only one person -- "the consumer." For better or for worse, he or she controls the destiny of multi-billion-dollar corporations whose fourth-quarter earnings will depend on what the consumer does between now and Dec. 24. If the consumer decides to sit this Christmas out, the country will continue to be in a recession, unemployment will increase, managerial heads will roll, and Ronald Reagan will walk in as president with one helluva mess on his hands.
Millions of dollars are being spent every day to get the consumer off his butt and into the stores. But so far it doesn't seem to be working.
I went to visit a consumer the other day and found him watching a football game.
"Harvey," I said, "it's a beautiful day. Why aren't you jamming the stores and helping them ring up record sales so the economists can announce that the recession is over?"
"I can't afford it," Harvey said. "The prices are out of sight."
"But Harvey," I protested, "everyone is counting on you to get them healthy again. The stores are staying open until 10 every night, just for you. They're not even closing on Sundays. You can make or break everyone's Christmas."
"I'd rather watch this football game."
"Do you know why you can watch a football game, Harvey? Because it's brought to you by the people who make blue jeans and electric shavers, light beer and popcorn machines. The only reason they're bringing it to you is that they feel you'll show your gratitude by going out and buying their products. If you just sit here they won't be able to sponsor any more sports events. There is no such thing as a free lunch."
"You can say that again. Do you know what these potato chips cost? I'm lucky I don't eat M&M's during a game."
"You mustn't think of yourself during Christmas, Harvey. You have to think of the economy. The stores are depending on you for 50 percent of their annual sales in the next two weeks. If you don't go into debt this year, everyone's going to think you're a rotten person."
The phone rang and Harvey picked it up. "Yeah," he said, "I know you've been waiting for me out in the parking lot since 9, but I'm busy now. I'm watching a football game. No, I have nothing against you personally. It's just that I'm not sure I'm going to buy too much this year . . . What with inflation and everything, we thought we'd cool it. No, it won't help to keep the store open all night long . . . Yeah, thanks for calling, and the same to you."
Harvey put the phone down. "It was J.C. Penney. He wanted to know why I hadn't responded to the ad he ran in the newspaper yesterday for an auto-racing set. He said if I couldn't come in he'd take my order over the phone."
"Call him back, Harvey," I said. "Tell him you'll borrow the money if you have to. But don't spoil the man's Christmas."
"He's not the only man who has called me. I've heard from Sears and Roebuck, Mart of K Mart, Shack of Radio Shack and Mrs. Tiffany. Everyone thinks I'm loaded."
"Harvey, you live in the greatest country in the world. But it won't remain that way if you sit at home during the 'Christmas Shopping Days' watching football. That doesn't put bread on anyone's table. The only way you can repay America for all its blessings is to blow your savings on gifts for everyone you know."
The phone rang again. Harvey did not want to pick it up, so I did. I was surprised to hear the voice on the other end.
"Harvey," I said, "it's Lee Iacocca of the Chrysler Corp. It sounds like he's been crying."
Harvey grabbed the phone. "Yeah, Lee, what do you want now? . . . I told you if I decided to buy a car for my kid, I'd consider a new K-model . . . But I'm flat-busted . . . The interest rates on my house are killing me . . . No, I don't want to speak to Frank Sinatra . . . Okay, I'll speak to Sinatra . . . Yeah, Frank, I've seen your commercials for Chrysler. They are great . . . You're doing a fine job . . . No, Frank, don't come over now. I'm tied up . . . Look, give me your phone number and if I change my mind I'll call you . . . Nice talking to you again."
Harvey hung up, and sighed, "It's not easy being a consumer these days. If it weren't for these TV football games, I don't know how I'd make it through the holidays."