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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, December 5, 2001

Stores report 'feel-good' items selling well

By Katherine Nichols
Advertiser Staff Writer

Chris Chu plans to give a certain kind of Christmas present this year. It's not expensive. Nor is it particularly innovative.

Adele Inoue of Hawai'i Kai shops for Christmas gifts at Pier 1 Imports. Many retailers report higher sales of "comfort items," such as candles since Sept. 11. "With the tragedy we've had, we're seeing a much greater emphasis on products that give solace," said David Griffith, associate professor at UH-Manoa's College of Business Administration.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

As Chu browsed the myriad candles at Pier 1 Imports in Kaka'ako recently, she knew exactly what she wanted: something that would make a friend feel good.

"She says (candles) are kind of uplifting. Just the scent calms her down," Chu, a 27-year-old Makiki resident, said of the intended recipient of the gift. "There's something about candlelight that makes everything seem more calm and serene."

Chu is not the only Hawai'i resident looking to acquire those "feel good" items since Sept. 11. Lipstick sales are up. Pet adoptions are on the rise. And consumers are targeting items for the home — with an old-fashioned slant. They are buying bigger trees, decorating earlier and adorning more. Many Hawai'i residents plan to make their own gifts this holiday season. And the purchases they do make reflect a desire to return to a simpler, more innocent era that existed only months ago.

Nationally, so-called "home comfort" merchandise has been a hot seller, including during the big Thanksgiving weekend kickoff of the shopping season. Sales of home and entertainment products were up almost 10 percent from the same three-day period last year, while home furnishings were up 5 percent, according to a survey of mall specialty stores by the International Council of Shopping Centers. Every other retail category in the survey except footwear was down compared with the start of the 2000 season.

And although retailers' holiday sales appear headed for what might be a lackluster season, analysts say sales of "comfort goods" may be a bright spot in an otherwise cloudy picture.

"With the tragedy we've had, we're seeing a much greater emphasis on products that give solace," said David Griffith, associate professor of marketing in the College of Business Administration at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa. Griffith said the trend is nationwide, with the National Retail Federation predicting that most shoppers this season will focus on traditional or comfort goods.

The trend has retailers taking notice. One entrance to Macy's at Kahala Mall is stacked high with Godiva chocolate gift packages. The other exhibits tea gift sets.

At Williams Sonoma in Ala Moana Shopping Center, gift displays are centered around food items such as mulling spices and breakfast baskets. Lead salesperson Eileen Ymas said soups and soup cookbooks are selling quickly this year. But most surprising this season, Ymas said, is how many people who have never before baked are now purchasing everything they need to function like virtual pros in the kitchen. Some male shoppers have declared they plan to bake sugar cookies and decorate them for gifts, she said.

Sharon Mulder, who lives near the airport, said she wants to give batches of homemade Baileys Irish Cream and bath salts to friends. As she strolled through Pier 1 Imports recently with an armload of empty glass bottles to fill with her own creations, Mulder, 45, admitted to purchasing more candles and "homier things" this season.

"Just about all of my adult clients say it feels like a different Christmas," said Honolulu clinical psychologist Robert Dave. "They are getting back to what's basic."

"What I've gotten from my clients is that one of the biggest consequences of Sept. 11 is an acute awareness on the part of everyone that life is precious and temporary, and can end at any time without notice," Dave continued. "It's really gotten people to think about what is fundamentally important. And these gift purchases reflect that mood."

Christmas decorations are flying out of stores earlier this year, according to Wendall Chong, the manager of Wal-Mart in Mililani. Sales are up 10 percent from last year in that department, said Chong, who expects to sell out of all decorations before Christmas.

Pier 1 Imports is enjoying similar sales. "I do know that our business has not been affected by Sept. 11," said manager Michelle Uhrig. "I attribute that to the fact that we are a comfort store."

Home items aren't the only attraction. The cosmetics industry — lipstick in particular — is doing well. In fact, lipstick sales in Hawai'i are up a staggering 40 percent since Sept. 11, according to Tracy Orr, vice president for global communications for Origins, which is owned by Estee Lauder.

Cosmetics makers say one of the reasons is that women often turn to lipstick — relatively inexpensive compared to other items — when they cut back on other luxuries.

"It's a cheap, easy fix to make yourself feel good," said Audrey Votano, managing director at Paul Brown Salon & Day Spa. "I think it's something people don't feel guilty about giving themselves." A new lipstick or an eyebrow wax may cost $10 or $15, whereas women may pay a few hundred dollars for a new dress.

Retailers aren't the only businesses to notice that people are gravitating toward tangible additions to their lives that make them feel good. The Humane Society recorded more activity during September and October. "We found about a 9.5 percent increase in adoptions," said Eve Holt, spokeswoman for the Humane Society. "And there was not a corresponding intake in terms of people giving up their animals."