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The Global Crisis: United States - Teddy bears make life a picnic for market's happy retailers

VENTURE INSIDE the Merchandising Mart in downtown Chicago, a 1930s Art Deco monolith so large that it has a postal code all of its own, and you are given a glimpse of the state of the economy in the city and beyond across the American Midwest. Powered by strong consumer confidence, it continues to boom.

True, there are areas of weakness. Farming is in crisis in the region, largely because of collapsing hog prices. And an unemployment rate that dipped to a meagre 3.6 per cent in the Midwest last year means that finding qualified workers has become a nightmare for many employers. But the plenitude of jobs, with low interest rates, negligible inflation and high stock prices, continues to deliver prosperity.

There is nothing bearish, for example, about the mood at Russ Berrie and Co, America's best-known teddy-bear wholesaler, which has a showroom for the retail trade in the Mart. A new high-end product line of "Vintage Bears" launched last month was sold out within two weeks. Each bear sells to retailers for $30 (pounds 18) or more. Business in the showroom is up 1,000 per cent over past year.

"Customers have walked in and placed orders for $30,000 on the spot," reports Geoffrie Cerese, the sales director, who says a strong retail performance over Christmas helped to fuel demand. "Since the new year, business has been rocketing. What is amazing is that we would sell so many of these bears so quickly."

One floor below Russ Berrie is Smartrooms Inc, a supplier of custom cabinets for kitchens and bathrooms. Its business is benefiting from an explosion of new-home sales across the Midwest.

"Brutally swamped," is the best description that James Livingston, Smartrooms' vice-president, can offer for the state of his business.

How long can it last? "You have to reach a saturation point, and I can kind of foresee that," he replies, pointing out that one day there will be more new homes than people to live in them. "But I think we have probably got another three years left. I sure hope so."

The scramble by employers to find skilled workers may soon become critical, however, which in turn could spell pressure on wages and a new inflation threat. One Chicago-based bank, TCF National, said it was even sending scouts into city shopping malls. "If we're being waited on by somebody who's very good, like at a shoe store, we try to recruit them," said a spokesman.

For recruitment firms, such as Esquire Staffing Group, the pressure to find workers is relentless. "I've never seen anything like this in the 40 years I've been in the business," says Esquire's chief executive, Sherwin Fischer. His consultants simply can't find enough people to fill all the vacancies. "Our people are nervous wrecks and they don't dare take any time off because they're making $2,000 a day."

Only a few months ago, Mr Fischer was confidently predicting at least a slowdown during 1999, but now he is not so sure: "Frankly, I don't see an end to it."