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Retail Therapy For The Economy

It was an ordinary, sultry Sunday this week at Sawgrass Mills, the sprawling mall outside Fort Lauderdale. In the midst of the Great Recession, “ordinary” is good news.

South Florida was one of the cradles of the economic downturn. The region staggered when the condo construction boom ended and real estate values tanked. Then the credit crisis struck last autumn. My wife, Linda, who loves to ferret out retail bargains, was nonetheless aghast when she visited Sawgrass Mills during last year’s holiday season. She found miles of empty corridors leading past stores that were piled high with merchandise going nowhere. Markdowns that ordinarily would make her jump for joy only frightened her.

This was going to be a really bad recession, she told me at the time, and of course we now know how right she was. So it was more than a physical relief to step into the air conditioning and find plenty of other shoppers this weekend.

At Neiman Marcus Last Call, four or five Brazilian women who had apparently run into one another chatted in Portuguese before going their separate ways. This is a good sign for Florida. Foreign visitors were a big part of the state’s economic mix before the bust, and Brazilians are important customers from South Beach to Disney World. With a strengthening currency and an economy that has held up better than most, Brazil could help restart Florida’s commercial motor.

The Grand Luxe Cafe, an upscale unit of The Cheesecake Factory, was noisy and full. After lunch we found drivers lurking in the crowded parking lots near the stores, hoping to snare a close-in spot rather than face a tropical death march across the asphalt.

National retail sales figures for May were disappointing when they were released last week. According to a survey by Thomson-Reuters reported by Dow Jones, same-store sales (excluding Wal-Mart, which no longer provides this data) were down 4.8% from a year ago. The mere fact that we found a lot of people at Sawgrass Mills hardly means that they were there to shop like it’s 1999, or 2006 for that matter. Maybe they were there because it costs more to run the air conditioner at home all day long.

But this is America, the land of the free and the home of the blue light special. When the going gets tough, we go shopping. A few months ago it was too tough even for that. Now, perhaps, it isn’t.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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