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This holiday season, togetherness, thrift have more value than pricey gifts

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 26, 2009 - In this second holiday season of the recession, Marc Carr, 28, says he has less money to spend on gifts for his family than last year -- but, all in all, he's feeling better about his future.

Last November found Carr closing his failed women's accessories shop at a St. Louis mall and trying to figure out how to start over. This year, he's back in school, working on a master's degree in business administration, and confident that when the economy recovers he will be poised to land a good job. He is currently leaving a full-time job at a bookstore and looking for part-time work, instead, so he can concentrate on his studies.

"Last year I had more to give, but I didn't know what I was going to do,'' he said. "I am more on course this year.''

Carr expects that retailers will see good numbers for their Black Friday sales as shoppers take advantage of deep day-after-Thanksgiving discounts, but, overall, he believes consumers will be spending less again this year.

"Everybody's feeling the strain, and I think people are going back to the basics of life,'' he said.

Carr's family is taking a more thoughtful approach to gift-giving this year. Instead of buying lots of presents for everyone, he said, they are buying one nice item for all to share. And, he added, his own holiday gifts will have to come from the heart.

"It will be very creative -- and challenging,'' he said.

Let's make a deal

If you're reading this story before 11 a.m. on Black Friday, you may have a shot at a 42-inch plasma TV at Walmart for $448, a $3 toaster at Target or a down comforter for $19.99 at Sears. While these advertised "door busters" may entice the recession-weary into the stores on the day after Thanksgiving, Americans say they plan to spend about the same amount as last year on their holiday gifts: an average of $638.

That amount is just slightly higher than last year's prediction of $616, according to Gallup's holiday spending poll, a national survey taken Nov. 5-8.

The bad news for retailers: Last month, Americans told Gallup they expected to spend a more hopeful $740.

The good news: Fewer Americans -- 34 percent of those polled -- said they would be spending less on gifts this year than last year, as compared to 46 percent in 2008.

But it's the small retail stores that are really feeling the pain of slowed sales -- and they are being hurt even more by the increase in online shopping, says Jana Bozif, who has worked at Gringo Jones Imports on Shaw Boulevard for six years.

"For small business, it's a big loss,'' she said. "Small business people really are hurting. All the focus is on the corporations, but small businesses are what made America."

The store made the local news last holiday season for this sign of the times, posted outside the entrance: "Business sucks; Come in and deal." The sign isn't out this year, but Bozif said little has changed.

"It has been extremely slow. We haven't had the foot traffic this year,'' said Bozif, who added that the store has seen an increase in customers using layaway plans.

Bozif understands the reluctance of consumers to spend this season, even if they aren't among the more than 10 percent of Americans currently unemployed.

"People get afraid. And if they're not positive they're going to get that paycheck, they hold on to their money. They're too scared to spend anything because they are worried. What's it going to be like next month?" she said.

Bozif, 23, said she won't be able to spend as much on gifts this year because she moved out of her parents' home and is living on her own for the first time, responsible for paying her own living expenses.

"When I had Daddy to rely on, where I was just paying my car payments and other little bills, it wasn't an issue. This year I'm on my own,'' she said.

Bozif said she recently told her mother to tell her family not to buy gifts for her but to focus on her young cousins.

"I told her, 'Just do it for the kids. For them, it's still magical.' We can do something for each other later in the year,'' she said.

A hopeful new year?

Though hiring is still slow, recruiter Abby Schwarz said she believes prospects are improving for the applicants she works with at Staffing Solutions, a Clayton agency that places workers in administrative and clerical jobs in the financial industry.

After seeing a rise in placements in September and October, the traditional holiday hiring lull has once again slowed the pace, but Schwarz said the agency is gearing up for pent-up demand by spring 2010 because companies can't go without re-hiring forever.

"In past recessions, there is a trickle of business and then all of sudden it just hits hard. We're ready for it," she said.

Still, with the holidays approaching, Schwarz said the agency sees desperate people who say they will take any kind of work.

"We have applicants on food stamps. We have applicants who've told us they are going to lose their homes. And, unfortunately, some can't even get food stamps because they make just enough so they don't qualify,'' Schwarz said. "We've heard a lot of really sad stores, and we take this home with us. It's really sad because these are people we like and we want to put to work.''

For some job applicants, this will be the second holiday season without work, she said.

"A lot of employers in years past waited until after the holidays to let people go. In 2008, employers cut hard and they cut fast and they let people go before Thanksgiving and Christmas,'' she said.

It's not unusual to see qualified applicants who have been looking for work for more than a year, and many are willing to accept part-time or temporary jobs that they would have turned down in the past, Schwarz said. Even one-day jobs, such as stuffing envelopes, aren't tough to fill.

"Stuffing envelopes isn't glamorous work, but they were thrilled to be doing it just for a day,'' Schwarz said. "If that was something asked of people in 2007, they would have said, 'Aw, no.' ''

Schwarz is optimistic that things will get better, and she says that applicants, for the most part, are understanding because of a sense that the nastiest period is over.

"I think we've gone as deep as we're going to go, and we're on the way up,'' Schwarz said. "I feel like people are finally understanding the difference between 'want' and 'need' and how to be nicer to one another. People seem to care about each other, for the most part. It's put a lot of things into perspective.''

Schwarz, 28, said she won't be changing her own spending habits this holiday season.

"I'm a young person. I never spend a lot of money,'' she said. "I never have it, so I try not to spend it."

Keeping the faith

Janet Cuenca, 71, of St. Louis says she always takes a common-sense approach to gift-giving. Usually, that means what she calls "token gifts" for her five grandchildren: books, music or movies, or perhaps an heirloom toy. Throughout the year, she treats them to theater performances and helps pay for Montessori preschooling.

"They have too many toys and clothes as it is, so I keep things simple and inexpensive,'' said Cuenca, a retired teacher.

Cuenca said that although she and her family have not been hard hit by the recession, she feels for people who have lost their jobs.

"I am not personally alarmed, but I see around me people who are losing things -- losing their homes or losing their jobs and not having any prospect of a job even after a year," she said.

Despite the economic forecasts, Cuenca said she will know that the recession is over when a young friend who has been unemployed for a year finds work.

"It is worrisome and distressing,'' she said. "I hope the money being put into the economy begins to catch hold, and I hope people don't give up before it can happen.''

The need for an optimistic attitude is seconded by Glenda Marshall, 70, who works for the city of Brentwood.

"America has been through tough times before, and we made it and learned and thrived,'' says Marshall, who believes all the bad news about the economy is having a negative impact on Americans.

She thinks it would help "if someone could just one time a day say, 'Hey, we're going to make it through this.' ''

Marshall said she grew up poor and has worked hard all of her life in a variety of interesting jobs. She has always had to be careful about spending, even in good economic times.

"Time are bad," Marshall acknowledges, but she believes that Americans need to pull together as they did after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"This is only money," she said. "If anything, this might give us room to breathe and realize that we don't, after all, need five TVs in one home and every new electrical device that comes out."

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.