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Thursday, December 24, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Downtown Hears Jingle Of Cash-Register Bells -- After Slow Start, Christmas Sales Are Picking Up

Seattle Times Business Reporter

Although two weeks of heavy rains in the Puget Sound region put a damper on the beginning of this year's holiday shopping season, Seattle-area retailers report they're better off in general than many of their counterparts around the nation.

Lucinda Payne, marketing director for the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), said new retail destinations such as Old Navy, Pacific Place and Nordstrom's new flagship store have helped boost traffic for many other downtown businesses.

"We're ending the year really well," said Payne, who conceded the shopping season got off to an unexpectedly slow start. "We're seeing great pedestrian traffic. Overall, the story is pretty good this year."

The DSA, which represents most of the businesses in the city's downtown core, anticipates many retailers will see up to 5 to 10 percent increases in their holiday sales over last year.

While merchants in this region have had to contend primarily with increased competition, retailers nationwide are scratching their heads over holiday sales that are up a scant 0.8 percent over last year, much lower than the 4 to 5 percent projected for this shopping season.

John Konarski, an analyst for the International Council of Shopping Centers in New York City, said unseasonably warm weather across the country suppressed sales for discounters, department stores and specialty shops.

Paula Stanley, a spokeswoman for Nordstrom, confirmed that business was off at the chain's Seattle-area stores, including its new downtown location, until the rains stopped and temperatures began to dip.

"It's really picked up since the weather (changed)," Stanley said. Up to that point, "people seemed to be waiting."

Shopping at Seattle's Westlake Center at midday earlier this week, David Braun of West Seattle was one of many who waited until late in the season to do their shopping.

"I started today and I'll finish today," Braun said. He said he hadn't done any shopping earlier because "other things took priority."

Many merchants depend heavily on the week after Christmas to help make their annual revenue goals, Konarski said.

"This is the most competitive time ever," Konarski said. "Everyone just wants that dollar."

For that reason, shoppers heading out Saturday can expect to find lots of things on sale, depending upon where they go. Some merchants, including Nordstrom, kept a close watch on inventory and are less likely to have overstock to clear at deeply reduced prices. Many traditional department stores, such as The Bon Marche, could have significant amounts of merchandise on sale after the holiday.

Retailers said there were signs that downtown's new attractions drew customers away from other shopping centers such as Bellevue Square, Northgate Mall and Southcenter.

"I'm sure people are exploring downtown," said Janet Bayne, marketing director for University Village, implying that the re-emergence of downtown did have a discernible impact on traffic and sales.

Payne of the Downtown Seattle Association said considering Boeing's recent announcements of job cuts, Seattle's retailers are in pretty good shape.

"For the most part," Payne said, merchants "are saying they're right where they want to be."

Robert Marshall Wells' phone message number is 206-464-2412. His e-mail address is: rwells@seattletimes.com

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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