NEW YORK — As tax checks are mailed to consumers, apparel firms and retailers are hoping their fashion offerings in cotton candy pinks, sunburst oranges and minty greens will take a share of those refund dollars.

But there are other expenditures — such as down payments on cars and houses — that consumers may be earmarking for their tax refunds. Still, retailers may see more refund-related money being spent in their stores this year.

“Retailers are going to see an immediate benefit,” said Ellen Tolley, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation. She noted that while big-ticket items such as home improvement goods and consumer electronics should reap the biggest rewards this year, apparel retailers could see an impact. “Because the spring merchandise has been received favorably by most consumers, retailers could see a pickup from consumers who have been waiting to purchase once their tax refund arrives,” she said.

According to Internal Revenue Service statistics, as of March 12, the average tax return was $2,151, up 4.9 percent from the $2,050 refunded in 2003. And according to the NRF, 145.7 million people, or 67.6 percent of U.S. consumers, expect to receive a tax refund this year.

Analysts and consumer-behavior experts say stores, from luxury retailers such as Neiman Marcus to mass merchants such as Wal-Mart, can expect to see a share of the refund expenditures.

However, with more consumers filing earlier (65.1 percent of consumers already filed in January or February, with another 20.9 percent planning to file this month), Tolley said retailers need to promote tax-related sales earlier than April to capture consumers’ refunded tax dollars.

Evidence of consumers’ spending sprees can be found throughout the retail world. Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, said same-store sales for March were heading to the upper end of its 4 to 6 percent target.

With the economy benefiting from the one-two punch of a tax stimulus and the conclusion of the Iraq war, Citigroup retail analyst Deborah Weinswig expects tax returns to bolster retail sales, although she said forecasting the precise percentage gains from tax refunds is not possible at this point.

Citigroup estimated that consumers’ total tax liability will drop about $170 billion, annualized, in the first half of 2004, raising disposable personal income by about 2 percentage points. Overall, in 2004 the tax liability per household should fall by about $1,300, with roughly $800 dropping in the first half.So how will consumers spend this year’s refund?

Marshal Cohen, chief apparel analyst at NPD Group, the Port Washington, N.Y.-based market research firm, said unlike other years, when apparel was the sole reward for a year’s hard work, today’s refunds are being spent across the board on items like new kitchens, digital cameras, flat-panel television sets, front-loading washers and dryers, as well as apparel.

Calling it the “almost-there syndrome,” Cohen noted retailers and brands such as Coach and Nieman Marcus stand to gain the most this tax season. He explained that most consumers want to reward themselves with a $200 handbag, but not necessarily with one costing $1,200. “Consumers are going to buy something that puts them into the designer mind-set, but not the top of it,” Cohen observed.

He suggested that, in order for retailers to capture a greater share of tax refunds, companies could incorporate “tax refund days.” This also would bolster an already strong comparable-sales environment.

But analysts and economists are warning that the spending spree may subside. These heady times may not last forever.

John Lonski, an economist with Moody’s Investors Service, asked rhetorically what would happen to consumer spending after refund-related spending dries up.

J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. senior economist James Glassman also put a damper on the hopes of retailers. “Idon’t think people in the retail business will be overwhelmed,” he predicted. He explained that, for many consumers, the tax refunds will be used to add to their savings accounts, or for a down payment on a car or a house. In addition, he said, because of the extremely cold winter, consumers have had large energy bills, which could divert their refund dollars.

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