After-Christmas sales -- before

Shopping in the Midwest this Christmas is like coming into one giant clearance sale. "Compared to sales on both coasts, the Midwest is sagging," says Larry Wachtel, vice-president and market analyst for Bache Halsey Stuart Shields.

Here in the industrial heartland, where state unemployment rates are the highest of any region in the country, retailers are bending to slimmer than usual consumer wallets in every possible way.

* In Detroit, the J.L. Hudson Company, the city's largest retailer, launched its annual January white sale a full week before Christmas.

* In Indianapolis, one major downtown store -- Block's -- began its "after Christmas" sale (calling it just that) Dec. 19.

* In Cleveland, all major stores, from Highby's to Joseph Horn, marked merchandise down 15 to 40 percent for the holiday sales season, according to a survey by the Cleveland Office of Consumer Affairs.

* And in Chicago, the block-square Marshall Field's, where customers can find a sale under way on every floor, the store opens at an unprecedented 8 a.m. in hopes of luring shoppers in on their way to work.

Generally, Midwestern retailers report their stores are crowded and that people are buying, but they are price-conscious.

"They're apt to pick up an item, look at the price, and put it down again," says one Illinois businessman. Many store owners, accordingly, are pushing practical items hardest. The pitch on everything from bedroom slippers to blankets is to spend now in order to save later -- both on energy costs and on inflation.

Many consumers, short of cash, are charging those purchases they do make. In Peoria, Ill., a factory town where many employees have been laid off and sales are running about even with last year, some stores report that almost half of what they sell is bought on credit. But personal bankruptcies in town are also up. One creditor says he will lose $100,000 this year alone. those in the credit-management business, such as Mayneen Dykstra, who heads the Central Illinois Credit Counseling Service in Peoria, says both the average age and income of those coming in for help is going up.

"Many are in the $30,000 to $40,000 bracket," she says. "They get in over their heads using credit, expecting their salaries to go up as the prices do. But inflation finally catches up with them."

So far, all indications in the Midwest are that Christmas shoppers are buying but that dollars spent will not make up for the inflation jump since last December.

Maggie Gilliam, retail analyst for First Boston Corporation in New York, agrees that retailers are faring "miserably" in the upper Midwest. Detroit, particularly, "is very, very soft."

"Everthing's on sale here -- even in the grocery stores," confirms Vera Griffith of the Detroit Consumer Affairs Department.

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