Commentary: Recession and retail don't mix well

At the stores, it looks like any holiday shopping season.

Halls in Crown Center is decked out in wreaths and ribbon, and its dress racks send the message that, somewhere out there, people are partying in style. Costco is lit up with oversized decorations. Wal-Mart offers a way to "deck the halls for less," starting with artificial Christmas trees as low as $25.

But this isn’t just any holiday shopping season, and no amount of faux cheer can make it so. This is a recession Christmas, and we’re all going to have to figure out how to deal with it.

Every Christmas comes wreathed in irony, for those inclined to consider how a holiday celebrating a birth in a manger morphed into a shopping free-for-all. But this year the paradoxes are especially plentiful.

Just for starters:

Deals are rampant, but many shoppers aren't impressed. A Gallup Poll found that consumers planned to spend an average of $616 on gifts this year, down more than $200 from last year and the lowest projected holiday spending in the 10 years Gallup has posed the question. Another survey, by the American Research Group, puts planned spending on holiday gifts at $431.

Retailers are desperate for business so they’re … cutting back on service. Because of layoffs, more people are available for seasonal work than in years past. But partly because of layoffs, merchants fear sluggish sales, so they’re hiring fewer workers.

Prices are eye-poppingly low — think $499.99 for a 32-inch high-def TV at Costco; think winter gloves and scarves for $1 at some of the Old Navy stores — but we’re told that may be a bad thing. Unnaturally low prices could spell deflation, which discourages business growth and puts people out of work.

Such are the contradictions wrapped up in a recession Christmas.

But we’ve been living in a contradictory world. Has it ever made sense that the health of the economy depended on people spending themselves into a sick situation?

To read the complete column, visit The Kansas City Star.

Related stories from McClatchy DC