CHICAGO — U.S. Commerce Secretary Don Evans says the economy is primed for a rebound if Americans would just open their wallets during the holiday shopping season.
"People ask all the time, ‘What can I do, what sacrifices can I make for my country?’ " Evans said at the first in a series of "America Works" forums Monday in Chicago. "One thing is moving on through fears. Go back to the stores."
But top retailers on Evans’ panel at the University of Chicago said many consumers aren’t heeding the call at the start of the holiday season. Sears chief executive Alan Lacy said revenues are down 3 to 4 percent since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
He said people are buying more household goods and home-improvement items, possibly because they feel like spending time with their families. But other items such as clothing and luggage aren’t selling as well.
"People want to stay home and watch the news on their big-screen high-definition TVs these days," Lacy said.
Crate and Barrel chief Gordon Segal said the high-end household goods retailer is having to adjust as people stop buying luxuries and focus on needs.
"We all believed in ‘97, ‘98 and ‘99 that we were all geniuses," Segal said. "Most specialty stores are selling things people want, not what people need."
Examples of these new shoppers were evident nearby at the Sears department store on State Street where Sandra Ross, 49, of Chicago, was looking for sheets and pillow cases.
"I went in for some of the more traditional things," Ross said.
Still, she works across the street at a T.J. Maxx store and said she sees enough shoppers to make her confident in the economy.
"People find a way to shop. They have a need to shop," she said. "They’re going to max out their credit cards."
Bush administration economic advisers on the panel said the government is doing what it can. Declining interest rates appeared to help before Sept. 11, as did tax cuts, said Larry Lindsey, assistant to the president for economic policy.
But to fight the post-terrorism slide, he said Congress should pass the further tax cuts and spending programs in the president’s economic stimulus package.
SeamCraft chief executive Stephen Stack told Evans any economic stimulus should include a requirement that tax dollars be spent only in America. His Chicago company tried to win a contract supplying bags to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, but lost out to a Chinese supplier.
"Without factories, there is no America," he said.
Toni Fonseca, who files documentation for immigrants and represents minority-owned shops with Chicago’s 47th Street Chamber of Commerce, said she fears the stimulus package will help only big business.
"Everyone here is talking about millions (of dollars)," she said. "But where does the small business stand?"
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