In the heart of the beast 

Money makes the world go 'round

From the strip malls to the supermarkets, holiday spending spreads hope and joy for retailers everywhere

Who's passing out the anesthetic?

Wearing uniform, numbed looks of faint terror, a multitude of parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts pack the aisles of KayBee Toys in Southgate Mall on the day after Thanksgiving, Year of Our Lord, 1997.

It's 10 a.m. on the largely mythical "biggest shopping day of the year," and while the rest of the mall is surprisingly calm, the furor at KayBee lives up to its billing. The toy seller is doing land-office business to the cosmically vapid Bush-era lilt of Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy."

But worrying, as the merchant class is wont to do, is especially common this time of year, as our culture plays out its annual festival of consumption. In the month or so before Christmas, Mom-and-Pop storekeepers and multinational corporations alike engage in a hell-for-leather scramble that can mean the difference between survival and failure through the following year's leaner months.

Needless to say, stress often overwhelms holiday cheer.

Those of a more spiritual bent wonder whether the vaunted Christmas spirit can survive a deluge of lucre unequaled during the rest of the year. Certainly, many Christian pastors (not to mention certain left-wing environmentalists) annually note a disparity between the humility of the Gospel stories and the physical luxuries many of their flock go in for as the days grow short.

Business people, though, seem to have little time for such social or theological niceties.

To them, the first decorative lights of the season are like the green flag in a do-or-die endurance race. According to representatives from Missoula's downtown, Southgate Mall and the growing Reserve Street commercial center, local businesses count on the Yuletide spend-tacular for as much as half their annual gross.

Holiday spending is so important in our nation's economic perception that the Washington Post last week placed as much blame for recent slides in the Dow Jones Industrial Average on "muted holiday sales" as on the current economic meltdown happening in Asia. Still, the very same issue of the Post gives reason to believe that this year once again will provide every bit of hoped for economic glory.

Americans, the report notes, had already racked up $15.6 billion in charges against their Visa cards since the end of November, up 12 percent from last year.

According to a 1994 survey by Maritz Marketing Research, 61 percent of Americans start saving for the holidays at the start of October. Fifteen percent save all year for December's donnybrook. A Gallup survey done last year reveals that the average American spends $800 during the holiday season.

Multiply that figure by approximately 250 million citizens, and you're looking at a cool $2 trillion.

Missoula's tradesmen and women report that they're doing just fine, thanks, but say the final verdict won't be rendered until after New Year's.

"I've been hearing good reports so far," says Hal Fraser of Missoula's First Security Bank. For those businesses enmeshed in the retail and service economies, Fraser says good weather, and an array of miscellaneous factors play into this apparently successful Noel.

"It has to do with everything from El Niño's effects to the fact that there haven't been any playoff football games in Missoula," he says. "I mean, these things have consequences. I think of friends and colleagues of mine who were spending $1,500 to go to Huntington, West Virginia, to see the [University of Montana] Grizzlies play last year, and this year maybe that money will be spent locally.

"Any money that's circulating helps everybody. For that to happen, it's very important for people to have the ability to spend -- and this year that seems to be happening."

Fraser adds that for other sectors of the economy, like the construction business, the pickings are often slim this time of year.

Back at KayBee, dozens browse in a fluorescent haze. Without youthful guidance, parents wander through the miasma looking at the items on their little ones' wish lists as though they were relics dropped from space.

Eventually, they make their way to the lines -- 30 yards long -- running from the cash registers to the back of the store, arms stacked with the year's most popular toys (including Sleep 'n Snore Ernie, Buzz Lightyear from the hit movie Toy Story, and filmmaker Steven Spielberg's regenerated dinosaurs).

In this scene approaching shopping chaos, the glimpse of a familiar face is comforting.

On a neglected rack off to the side, Barbie's eugenic blonde stare is unchanged. Rumor has it that Barbie's manufacturers, finally caving to criticisms that the old girl's measurements would cause a real woman to capsize, are planning a height/weight proportional version.

For at least one more Xmas frenzy, though, Barbie looks the same as she ever was.

Just as Christ is believed to have been born to redeem humanity, the holiday observing his birth -- along with the Jewish festival of light, Hanukkah, and such modern adjuncts as Kwanzaa and the quasi-pagan revival of the winter solstice -- arrives annually to resurrect the economy.

Since the ringing of the cash register signals the ultimate act of capitalism, it's no wonder that America's most deeply felt celebrations of religion have made room for massive sacrifices at the altar of commerce.

The quantum concentration of spending in the three or four weeks between Turkey Day and Christmas puts loads of pressure on people who sell for a living. Missoula merchants say the hours are long and intense, the marketing strategies complicated and the competition fierce.

They seem resigned, though, to the fact that a cultural pattern deeper than economics will ensure December remains the focal point of retailing's calendar.

"It's just the rhythm of our society," says Doug Anderson, Southgate Mall's manager, a man who's evidently given some thought to the history of the holidays.

"Unfortunately or fortunately, over a couple millennia of history, we've set our buying patterns around holidays. That was true in Greek and Roman times, when festivals marked periods of harvest and consumption, and it's true today."

Anderson says many of Southgate's tenants find reason to exist from these few weeks of chilled days. Some, like the cheese shop Hickory Farms, he says, have given up on the rest of the year entirely and become wholly seasonal enterprises. The rest peg their hopes, at least to some degree, on making consumers' lists of who's nice.

"Depending on the type of store, you are looking at a minimum of 16 percent of your annual business in December. That's the absolute minimum," Anderson says. "January typically makes up only 5 percent, and February just slightly more, so I have to get all these tenants through that incredible dry spell.

"But, hey, that's what makes the fun of retail."

Though Missoula's mall is one of the largest in the state (other big players are in Great Falls and Billings), Anderson's forced to stay limber on a playing field where the rules shift constantly. The fun of retail -- and Anderson sounds like he means it -- involves distinguishing a two-decade-old shopping center from the ever-mutating species of competitors.

When Southgate opened in 1978, there was no Reserve Street complex, downtown wallowed in the doldrums, the Internet was an embryonic toy of the Defense Department and the wave of mail-order catalogues had yet to build to tsunami-like proportions.

Anderson works to keep the mall's tenants profitable by reaching out beyond Garden City. With a combination of promotion, a carefully designed atmosphere and a fortuitous location along the joint Highway 93 and I-90 axes, Southgate draws on dollars from a vast swath of country.

"There are constants, of course," Anderson adds. "But that's not to say the patterns don't change. Easter used to be a huge season for retail, but it's not any more. Little girls with chiffon dresses and patent-leather shoes are a thing of the past.

"The only markets in which Easter retains that old importance in this country are Hispanic areas where merchants can still pull in that business.

"So many things can happen. There are so many factors at play. What if the economy goes sour? What if -- and this is taken from real life -- Asia suddenly goes into a depression? These things have consequences even here in Missoula, Montana."

A walk through icy mall parking lots all over Missoula this time of year furnishes an exotic license-plate tour of Big Sky Country. Anderson cherishes his far-flung demographic, but notes that Southgate's reliance on the automobile places it at the mercy of Mother Nature and her snowy offspring.

"We all know the story of last year's winter," he says. "But this year, on a beautiful day after Thanksgiving, when we could have gotten 'em in from the north side of the moon, we had 20,000 cars on our lot, 2,500 more than last year. That means 50,000 people."

It's downright sobering to think that Southgate Mall holds as many people as, say, RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. Of course, such numbers represent just a fraction of the humanity sliding through Missoula's streets during the last days before the gifts must be given.

Those used to a semi-bucolic pace find crosstown trips more harrowing than ever these days, as Reserve Street's boxy chain stores and a slick, revitalized downtown draw on constituencies just as broad as Southgate's.

For businesses in these neighborhoods -- if you can call North Reserve a neighborhood -- the Christmas stakes are just as high.

"The holidays account for anywhere between a quarter and a third of our annual take," says Linda Knox, manager of Barnes & Noble Booksellers, the sprawling chain outlet that's proven as popular among Missoula readers as it is reviled by its locally-owned rivals.

"Our main strategy is to highly train our sales staff to be attentive to the customers, to put aside their other projects and concentrate on service," Knox says.

Judging by the thoughtful crowds browsing Barnes & Noble's aisles the weekend before the Big Day, Knox and company are doing something right. The success of the mega-bookshop and its kindred superstores means smaller, local concerns must band together in a capitalist version of class solidarity.

Meanwhile, downtown tradesfolk, some of whom have been in Missoula for decades, hit many of the same notes as they describe their battle to survive in an atmosphere of spiraling competition.

"No matter what you do, something new is going to open up, and people are going to test drive it, find out if it's for them," the Trailhead's Charlie Stevenson says. "That's going to divide the pie in a new way. I just think we need to continue to offer the best service and the best product selection we can.

"That's not just a Christmas thing, that's a year-round thing."

Renate Bush, owner of Gardengate and retail chair of the Missoula Downtown Association, says that beyond offering the new, the different, or the locally-produced, downtowners must combine forces in a manner that challenges the almighty mall and its affiliates in their own right.

"Businesses in downtown definitely have to pool their resources," she says "You know, for some of these big stores to buy three or four pages in the Missoulian is nothing, so for all of us to get together to share just one is incredibly important."

Bush makes it plain that perceptions and experiences are a big part of what drives shopping habits, and says that, like the mall, downtown business strive to create an attractive atmosphere.

"A lot of what we do is in response to the competition that's arisen, but there are other concerns," she says, "We want the dollars, yes, but we also want people to think of downtown as part of the community.

"We have to position ourselves in relation to other options people have. We offer higher quality, and, yes, things cost a little more because they are higher quality."

Stevenson notes that filling certain niches, as he does with the outdoor-oriented Trailhead, gives smaller merchants an advantage over the auto-dependent enterprises located in Southgate Mall.

While a massive snowfall might deter the commuter shoppers from the Flathead and Bitterroot, which the mall and Reserve Street merchants depend on, Stevenson's says his customers typically see themselves as a hardy lot, and the Trailhead owner takes advantage of their excitement over Montana's famous weather extremes.

"Because we're snow-related, you know, we're sort of farming snow," he says. "Having a positive attitude about the weather in Missoula and its possible impacts on the economy is really important."

As for the fiscal importance of the season, Bush echoes numbers quoted by Anderson and Knox. Relatively new to the retail race herself, she says she was initially stunned by the hard work: "There's such tremendous pressure on these months, which carries back through earlier months."

Like shoppers squirreling away bucks while Halloween still awaits, she notes, sellers also plan early. "We do our ordering in the fall, and by the end of October or beginning of November we're canceling orders, rewriting orders, putting in new orders and just changing everything around based on what we think the Christmas season will be like.

"It's something of a shot in the dark. You hold your breath a little, that's for sure."

As businesses of all sorts rev up and shoppers get down to the serious business of celebrating whatever material wealth they've got, the town festoons itself with reminders of the holiday's ancient past. Evergreen wreaths, blinking lights and mistletoe, in addition to the generous spirit of hedonism, would look and feel familiar to the pagans who first lit Yule logs and spent winter's darkest days feasting.

Even in the midst of the Saturnalian excess, however, there are those who insist that subtler spiritual concerns deserve the attention otherwise foisted upon Barbie, Buzz Lightyear and other standard-bearers of the commercial crusade.

For Jim Hogan of Christ the King Church, as well as for other Missoula churchfolk marking the season, it's the holidays' complex message of redemption and rejuvenation that matters. "Initially we put a tremendous emphasis on Advent, the beginning of Advent as the beginning of a time of preparation," he says.

"I don't say anything about commercialism at that time except to say, you know, the merchants are ready and the trap is set, so over the next few weeks we have a choice to make. I encourage them to continue to hear the call of what Advent is really all about."

Repeating spiritual urgings heard through the ages, Hogan says he asks the faithful to look beyond the trillion-dollar orgy of consumption.

"On Christmas, my homily is going to be about just this topic," he says. "I'm going to call on people to pass on the tradition to their children, and by tradition I mean the Gospels, the meaning of the Gospels.

"You know, the biggest preachers in the country are commercials. And to give someone a gift is a wonderful thing, insofar as that gift is a symbol of you giving yourself to that person. But the public religion of the United States is work hard, make money and buy things. Often, while we're trying to do something kind, we get caught up in this commercialization of those feelings."

Given that merchants tend to talk about the holidays in terms of survival, Hogan's emphasis of the Christian message of rebirth is worth attending.

Regardless of faith, people have been celebrating the perseverance of life in a season characterized by cold and darkness for thousands of years. The impulses to party, cough up cash and relentlessly pursue talking stuffed animals ruling the day are expressions of an old need to carry on through tough times.

The thousands of shoppers stoking the fires of Missoula's commerce -- and those depending on their dollars -- would do well to remember that deep pull as December's chaotic last days play out.

By the time you read this, there's a good chance that the presents are wrapped and under the tree. In that case, you can enjoy knowing that once again somebody has yielded the call of commerce -- chances are, with Christ's name in the back of their mind -- and buoyed the hopes of merchants from here to Bethlehem.


This time of year, it seems like everybody's just living in a Barbie world. Photo by Jeff Powers.


By making the mall a playground for kids and a destination for parents, retailers hope they can encourage lots of shoppers to stop by. Photo by Andy Kemmis.


Armed with armfuls, grown-ups take over KayBee toys the day after Thankgiving -- and occupy the shop through Christmas Eve. Photo by Andy Kemmis.

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