South Florida retailers see international shoppers returning
By Jaime Levy
Some retailers say international customers are returning to South Florida on the wings of the holiday shopping season.
At Dolphin Mall, which targets airport travelers, the manager said he watched Central and South American bulk buyers - people looking to bring back merchandise for resale in their home countries - stock up last weekend on goods.
"There were a number of customers buying racks of merchandise," said Al Messer, general manager of the Miami mall, which opened last summer. "We haven't seen it for a while because the economy's been tough in Central and South America."
At Sawgrass Mills, an established tourism-retail destination, the weekend saw a 5% increase in motorcoach tours from other cities, as well as attendance from groups from around the world, said Valeria Braga, tourism director for the Sunrise discount mall.
"Honestly, people are coming back," she said. "Bookings are coming back."
Indeed, said Rosemary McCormick, president of the Shop America Alliance, a group for shopping-tourism destinations with offices in Florida, the Latin American market - on which South Florida retailers often lean - is showing signs of renewed interest in US retail.
"The feeling has been that initially we were seeing a tremendous drop off," Ms. McCormick said. "But we're seeing a pretty healthy rebound in certain key markets. Latin business will come back faster."
Rick Still, managing director of La Cumbre, a conference promoting Latin American travel to the US, said that wealthier tourists make up the bulk of shopping expeditions to South Florida, making them more likely to make a trip during economic uncertainty.
"These guys are coming up to buy big-ticket brand items. That part of the population is least affected by economic swings," he said. "We feel strong we're going to continue to see high-end shoppers coming."
While the return of international shoppers is anecdotal at this point, statistics confirm a rise in total buyers in Florida.
For the holiday weekend that began Friday, the state saw a 2.7 % same-store sales increase through Sunday, according to Bill Ford, senior economic adviser to TeleCheck Services, which measures purchases made by check.
The southeast region of the state was strongest with a 2.8% increase, he said, while national figures were up 2.3%.
Although total sales were up in Florida, the increase was attributed to a rise in the number of shoppers as opposed to amount spent. The average dollar amount of each check written decreased by 6.5%, from $68.07 last year to $63.65 this year, Mr. Ford said.
"Either Floridians found a lot of bargains," he said, "or spent a little less."
Paul Rothenberg, spokesman for the Florida Retail Federation, said his organization showed slightly better numbers, with members reporting an average of 3.5% to 4% increases in sales.
"Even prior to Sept. 11, we were never experiencing numbers comparable to last year," Mr. Rothenberg said. "This past year saw a lot of instability in the economic market. Everyone was making very conservative projections.
"I don't think we're going to see numbers like in previous years, but we're not going to see the gloom-and-doom projections, at least in Florida."
The high-end Bal Harbour Shops, at 9700 Collins Ave., reported higher numbers in its parking garage during the weekend but sales figures for the period have not yet been compiled.
"Ever since the 11th, our business has been off," said owner Stan Whitman. "It was just Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday that our numbers picked up. We're beating last year in parking count. The first big turnaround commenced on Thanksgiving."
This retail optimism is beginning as Congress continues to consider legislation for a national sales tax holiday to boost consumer spending. The bill had a proposed a November starting date, but retail representatives said a later start could boost the economy in early 2002, typically the slowest season for shoppers.
The Florida Retail Federation has endorsed the tax holiday idea.