Friday, December 12, 2008

A not so jolly season

I struck out (0 for 5) on catalogue shopping this Christmas. So I screwed up my courage and headed for my local (Burlington, Mass.) mall. It was 10:30 a.m., two weeks before the big day, and I braced for the worst. I hate shopping almost any time. I hate malls worse.

I knew we are living in strange times when I parked toward the front of the lot, four rows from the entrance. Inside eight or 10 kids were lined up to see Santa. Sale signs were in every window. And stores looked about as crowded as an ice-skating rink in July.

If this is a true snapshot of America today, in another quarter we'll be lookling wistfully back at those lousy November sales and unemployment figures. Because America's consumer culture seems flat-out moribund. I bought five gifts (shhh, can't say what in case Kathy looks at my blog). This I can tell you. The price of one was 40 percent off. The other four I bought at half price. That's right, two weeks before Christmas. And still I was one of only a few shoppers in the stores.

It doesn't feel much like Christmas this year. Three days of rain certainly hasn't helped. But there's no bounce in the step of people boarding the bus or MBTA, no one is carrying shopping bags, even the too-friendly drunks have left town. People, I suspect, are either feeling or fearing the pain.

After the initial euphoria over Barack Obama's election, another reality seems to have sunk in with Americans: We're in for a long winter, years long perhaps, of getting along with less. The wrecking crew of the last eight years has done a devastating job.

I figure I'll keep spending, moderately and within my means as I always have. But big ticket items aren't on my Christmas list this year -- not even at 50 percent off. Who knows how low the market will drop, how battered the economy will get, or even whether both of our jobs will make it through all this. I'm pretty confident they will. But for those less confident or already out of work, even blowout bonanzas, as some signs promise, offer no bargain this year.

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