By  on January 9, 2002

THE OUTLOOK FOR THE MIDWEST PROVES UNCERTAIN IN THE FIRST HALF, AS RETAILERS STRUGGLE TO REBOUND FROM A TOUGH HOLIDAY SEASON.

Despite sluggish sales following Sept. 11, good news may be around the corner for retailers, as some analysts predict a slight economic turnaround during the first quarter of 2002.

But then again, all that hinges on world events.

"There are so many unstable conditions in the world right now. It makes our job as forecasters more difficult," admitted Dianne Erpenbach, director of fashion retail management at Columbia College in Chicago. Roseanne Cumella, general merchandise manager at The Doneger Group, a New York-based retail buying and consulting firm, agreed.

"Everyone is cautious," she said. "Everyone wants to be optimistic because we need to be, but it's such a wait-and-see attitude."

"I think there is going to be marginal growth in the first quarter, but that could change," she added. "If there's another attack and we have two weeks of no one shopping, that's hard to make up."

What occurs in Afghanistan, as retailers know, directly affects what happens in shopping centers and boutiques across the country.

"As the vice gets tighter in Afghanistan, people get nervous [about retaliation], and they don't invest in the stock market and they don't shop," said Keven Wilder, a retail consultant based in Chicago. "Every time we have an alert, it's a reminder of where we've been. If we have another terrorist attack, that will set us back."

However, shoppers' attitudes also reflect the U.S.'s recent progress in the war. As Afghanistan slowly rebuilds and the United States continues to seek out Osama bin Laden, without major setbacks, many customers are more comfortable and confident and are returning to stores.

"In December, I've seen consumer confidence on an individual level starting to come back," said Gina Kulbieda, owner of Jolie Joli, a boutique located in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood.

That fact, combined with a predicted slow upturn in the economy, may provide retailers with improved profits.

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