Out of America: Fill your trolley and save the country

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The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - What a difference a day makes. Last week saw Thanksgiving, generally considered the least commercialised and most enjoyable of all American holidays. It is a time for family reunions, when Congress packs up for the year, when even the shopping malls are shut, and a great quiet falls over the land. And so indeed it did for the space of 24 hours on Thursday, Thanksgiving Day itself. Come Friday, the malls were jammed, alive with the sound of Santa. Thanksgiving was back in its appointed place in the great scheme of things - Christmas Shopping's Eve.

In a way this year was no different. Buy so much as a bottle of aftershave from a big store during the preceding 10 months and about now a gift catalogue as thick as Time or Newsweek, but twice as glossy, will drop through your letterbox. As usual, there is the predictable crop of extravagances. Heading the 1993 selection is a personal luxury submarine, battery powered and capable of three days under water at a stretch. Its dollars 4.5m ( pounds 3m) price tag includes not only walnut panelled interiors and pile carpets, but a fortnight's training course for the 'high net worth' Greek shipping magnates said to be interested. No less of a necessity (but somewhat cheaper) is a gadget resembling an ice-cream scoop which makes perfect spherical snowballs. Among other items jostling for your eye, to name but two from a selection in the Wall Street Journal this week, are a leather chewing-gum dispenser and a dog's jogging suit on offer at Saks Fifth Avenue. The suit is made from 'classic Burberry plaid' and priced at dollars 55 or dollars 65, depending on the size of your pet.

In truth though, such glorious nonsense is these days the exception rather than the rule of America's traditional Rites of the Nativity. No longer is Christmas shopping portrayed as an indulgence of little lasting consequence, except to the balance on one's credit card. Instead it has become a patriotic duty on which a country's future hangs. What happens in America's shopping malls over the next four weeks, so the experts would have us believe, is a make-or-break exercise for the national economy - Buy More Presents and Save a Job. Forget the Federal Reserve, progress in the Gatt talks, or the Index of Leading Indicators. The indicators which matter now are the reports from the men in the trenches, the sales directors at Macy's, Saks, Bloomingdales, Walmart and the rest.

And everyone plays along. Switch on the car radio for the local news, and occupation rates at mall parking lots are treated as veritable dispatches from the battle front, reported almost as breathlessly as Schwarzkopf's progress in the Gulf war. No fact is too small to omit. Much hope is derived from a report that orders for corrugated cardboard packaging rose 10 per cent in October, harbinger presumably of a vintage retail Christmas. Ikea, the Swedish furniture chain, produces further grounds for optimism. Proudly, a spokesman noted that the customers who thronged to Ikea outlets in the north-eastern US over the weekend devoured more than a million Swedish-style meatballs in its restaurants. By such gastronomic abandon is economic upswing measured.

Others predictably are more guarded. 'Cheered by Solid Weekend Sales, Merchants Still Won't Celebrate,' intoned the New York Times in a suitably balanced headline on its front page on Monday. For its part, the Journal proffers data from a tracking service operated by Visa credit card, suggesting that spending at discount stores is running proportionately much higher this year than last - in other words that an anxious populace is being unusually careful. In short, you're no longer just a Christmas shopper, but one tiny cog among tens of millions of others, whose collective whim is monitored as closely as the voters' mood during a presidential election.

None of this is to minimise the importance of the moment. In the retail trade, the day after Thanksgiving is known as 'Black Friday'; the point at which a retailer moves out of the red and starts making a profit. As for consumer confidence and spending, their relevance to the general economic weal is obvious. Indeed, if a surprisingly strong start to the Christmas buying season in California holds up, it might just signal the end of recession in the most populous US state.

But will it? Across the country the seers prognosticate, factoring into their guesses everything from weather patterns to the rival attraction of forthcoming football games on TV. The omens, however, remain defiantly mixed. Saks reports a two per cent drop thus far (despite the canine jogging suits), but Bloomingdales is apparently up 11 per cent from the same period of 1992. In other words the dismal science is as usual not only dismal, but confusing. 'Anyone who calls this after a day or two is either a gambler or a clairvoyant,' the man from Macy's told the New York Times. As for us non-experts, only one thing is sure - that Thanksgiving already seems an eternity ago.