Medium-priced suits are moving while more expensive ones sit on the rack. Home sales are down, but sales of books about home renovations are up. Fancy electronic equipment goes wanting, yet basic stereo systems are still selling. And car dealers are seeing customers come back dozens of times before making a purchase.
After a decade in which retail sales jumped an average of $1 billion a year, retailers are finding that Washington area consumers appear to have reached a plateau. Shoppers are taking their time buying, selecting cheaper items and not purchasing as much, according to a cross-section of merchants.
"Consumers want more out of a purchase," said Susan Gorman, senior manager of the 12-store Raleighs clothing chain. "... They ask about credit plans, deferred billing, putting things on hold so that they can shop around."
"In this situation, you just have to work a little harder," said Richard H. Snyder, vice president of Jerry's Lincoln Mercury. "You just have to get back to basics. For a long time, car dealers in the Washington area had it easy. Now we can still do OK but we have got to work at it."
The consumer climate has made Washington merchants jumpy, but their nervousness may be partly a result of superheated expectations, fed by years of rising sales. In 1980, retail revenue in the Washington area totaled $17.4 billion; by 1989 it had nearly doubled to $31 billion, according to the Commerce Department. Average yearly household income jumped $20,000 in the decade to almost $50,000, attracting an army of stores such as Nordstrom, Macy's and Tiffany.
Washington still outperforms national trends: retail sales in the Washington area grew 8.5 percent in the first seven months of this year compared with last year, while total U.S. retail sales for the same period grew only 4.2 percent. Still, anecdotal evidence suggests that consumers here have become wary about keeping up their spending habits.
Automobile dealers estimate that area car sales this year are down about 5 percent, with consumer caution spread across price categories. At Kline Tysons Toyota, sales manager Dave Perno said the era of customers waiting in line to buy cars has passed. At the same time, some models seem to be benefiting from consumer substitution based on price.
Lincoln Mercury's Snyder said his best-selling automobile is the Tracer, priced about $13,000, which he described as "upscale economy." At the high end, Lexus dealers in the Washington-Baltimore area also appear to be benefiting from substitution. "We are trading lots of Mercedes Benzes, Jaguars, BMWs and Porsches," said Joseph Cameron of Lexus of Alexandria.
Charles Shoup, owner of The Artist's Proof, a local chain of four stores that sells historical memorabilia and autographs, has noticed that people are choosing more carefully. "They will not take extras like $20, five-minute framing," he said. "And they will buy more of the stocking-stuffer items rather than the higher-priced ones."
That sentiment is echoed in bigger-ticket items. Dan Plant, manager of the downtown Washington branch of retailer Desks & Furnishings, noted that instead of buying $2,000 solid cherrywood desks accompanied by $1,500 leather chairs, his customers are opting for cheaper wood-veneer units with fabric-covered chairs.
"It's gone from a mood of exuberance to one of cautious optimism, where more and more people buy as they have to, as opposed to when they might want to," Plant said. "There is still a lot of money out there, it's just retailers have to be absolutely right these days in order to get it."
Unlike other regions of the country, which report almost depression-like spending cutbacks, local consumers have not closed their wallets and pocketbooks completely. This is most likely because of the area's wealth of dual-income households, its highly educated work force and its traditional insulation from economic downturns because of the presence of the federal government. The region traditionally ranks first in household income and retail sales among all major metropolitan markets, according to Sales & Marketing Magazine's Annual Survey of Buying Power.
As a result, consumers will still buy if they want an item. At Crown Books, for example, sales of Civil War books are booming after national interest on the topic was piqued by a recent PBS series. "People are not denying themselves if it's a real desire," said Crown President Robert Haft. "They may not be able to buy a car or a house, but they are not going to shut down completely."
But evidence of shopper reticence is causing retailers to think hard about future plans, especially for the important Christmas season. Major retailers nationwide reported poor September sales last week and some analysts think that the figures could be a harbinger of weak holiday sales, marked by discounting and promotional activity. Last Christmas, retailers were burned when they were forced to slash prices -- and their profit margins -- to increase sales.
Stores that carry necessities such as food and low-ticket items will likely do better than high-end specialty stores. Retailers see customers more conservative about fashion changes.
"We are definitely buying more carefully and conservatively for the holiday season, with a range of prices," said Tim Finley, chairman and chief executive of Jos. A. Banks Clothier Inc. in Baltimore, with eight stores around Washington. "It is definitely not the time to take wild chances."
Staff writer Warren Brown and staff researcher Margaret Webb contributed to this report.