CHICAGO — The retail sector trotted out its sometimes-schizophrenic mix of cynicism and optimism here Monday when asked to “vote” on issues ranging from the strength of the holiday season to corporate social responsibility.

An upbeat 47 percent of attendees at the annual Retail Industry Leaders Association’s conference expect holiday sales to be higher than last year, according to an informal poll taken during the opening session.

The results astonished moderator Stuart Varney of Fox News. Varney predicted a somber outlook — that retailers were prepared for a holiday downturn. “I am supposed to be the financial analyst for Fox News,” he said. “And I haven’t got a clue.” More than one-third (35 percent) of respondents predicted flat sales and 18 percent foresaw a sales decline.

The session’s panel also lacked consensus on the mood of the upcoming holiday season. Howard Levine, chairman and chief executive officer of $5 billion Family Dollar Stores, said the Charlotte, N.C., company is expecting holiday sales gains in the 2 to 4 percent range. Kathleen Mason, president and ceo of $897 million Tuesday Morning, said the Dallas closeout retailer expects to see “flat to slightly positive” gains. The third panelist, Gordon Brown, managing director of U.K.-based Wilkinson Hardware Stores, would only say, “It’s going to be a really tough Christmas” for his company. The privately held, 200-store Wilkinson has estimated sales of $1.9 billion.

In another audience poll, Varney asked what motivates corporate America to respond with hurricane relief and other philanthropic programs.

The largest group of respondents, or 39 percent, selected “desire to create good will and loyalty among customers” from among multiple-choice responses.

“There is a cynical element to that, is there not?” said Varney.

RILA, formerly known as the International Mass Retail Association, said Sunday that Best Buy vice chairman and ceo Brad Anderson was named chairman. The conference concludes today.

This story first appeared in the October 11, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

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