There's nothing like a cool, rainy September day to bring out the fall shoppers. Last Saturday was such a day in New England. Round and round the parking lot went drivers, searching in vain for spaces. Inside the Mall at Chestnut Hill, it was wall-to-wall people.
At the women's handbag counter in Filene's, handsome leather wallets - the kind that can hold checkbook, change, bills, and credit cards - were on sale for the usual: ''They make great Christmas gifts. I've bought a few myself.''
This scene typifies the retail business this fall. Seasonal weather has whetted buyer appetites for the new fashions, sparking brisk sales for department stores. At the same time, there seems to be no letup on the promotional side. Sales and discounts, almost an institution now because of trends set by off-price retailers, are in abundance.
The brisk business has retailers optimistic about Christmas. ''We do not see anything on the horizon in terms of economic conditions or in the apparent buying patterns of our customers at this time that would lead us to expect anything other than a very strong, record Christmas,'' says Philip Bradtmiller, director of investor relations for Associated Dry Goods, which owns Lord & Taylor and the J. W. Robinson chain.
In recent weeks, mass merchandisers nationwide have seen the percentage of year-over-year sales increases ''running up in the mid-teens,'' says Monroe Greenstein, senior retail analyst at Bear, Stearns & Co., the New York brokerage house. ''In the last few months it was single-digit gains,'' he says.
Summer was dog-day slow. In August, retail sales fell 0.8 percent from July, which had dropped a sharp 2 percent from June. ''Our sales could have been better,'' comments Earl Spector, senior vice-president of Ames Department Stores , a Northeast chain of 178 discount stores. ''Because of the Olympics and weather our sales were soft in August.''
At the same time, it seemed inevitable that consumers could not keep buying at the pace they had established in the first half of the year. Personal income crept up just 0.5 percent in August, the least since May, and personal spending showed only a 0.1 percent increase, indicating that spending is cooling off.
But that doesn't mean consumers are simply becoming window-shoppers. Even though the consumer expectation index (the Conference Board index that measures consumer outlook on business, jobs, and personal income) has fallen from 129.9 in January to 99.5 in August, ''the index is still at a very high level,'' says Fabian Linden, the board's consumer economist. ''I think there is clearly strength in the economy that Christmas should be, looking at this moment at least, a very positive Christmas.'' Low inflation is still a significant boost to buying power, Mr. Linden says.
John Cohn, executive vice-president of Independent Retailers Syndicate in New York, believes shoppers are optimistic. ''The country as a whole still is moving forward and is less out of control than a lot of us thought a year go. Inflation is under control and the deficit is not getting worse,'' he says.
The specialty and regional chain stores that buy from Mr. Cohn's worldwide operation have volumes coming in that indicate they have ''healthy (sales) increases in mind,'' he says. Stores are counting on customers buying items like fashion watches, although not high-priced ones, and stone jewelry and pearls, Cohn says. Dramatic leather goods - jackets with zippers and studs - are in, along with wearable art, ''fun'' furs, and luxury sweaters of exotic fibers and blends. ''We are not talking about $1,000 watches or $4,000 minks, but things with pizazz'' at reasonable prices, he says.
Because discounting has become so widespread in the industry, consumers can expect to find markoffs between now and Christmas. However, retailers have learned to ''plan for promotions,'' Mr. Greenstein says - which means they start off with higher markups in the first place. The price situation should not hurt department store profit margins unless stores have to unload a lot of inventory quickly, in which case they will have to do ''real'' discounting. Right now, ''the inventory level is drawing fairly close to acceptable levels,'' says Greenstein.