By Chuck Slothower
FARMINGTON With some economic indicators showing improvement, retailers are hoping for strong sales this spring and summer in the Four Corners.
Locally and nationally, the economy is showing some signs of life as it recovers from the slowdown that began in fall 2008 and hit hard in 2009-10 before modest recovery last year.
"People are optimistic," said Jeff Ring, general manager of Animas Valley Mall. "I think we're seeing signs of trends going back up a bit."
In a positive sign for retail, the mall welcomed a new store last week. Justice sells clothing and accessories for the youth "tween" market, approximately ages 10-13.
Another store, hat retailer Lids, will open at the mall in by the end of April, Ring said.
"That's always good news," he said.
Retail trade revenue to the city of Farmington showed slight improvement in fiscal year 2011 from the previous year, an indicator of stronger
Retailers hope that carries over to a strong summer.
"I'm guessing from what I'm hearing that people are indeed optimistic and looking forward to a fairly profitable tourism season," said Dorothy Nobis, president and CEO of the Farmington Chamber of Commerce.
Nobis noted that taxpayers are beginning to receive their refund checks. With the economy improving, that could boost retail activity, she said.
"People are maybe a little more willing to spend it this year than last year," she said.
In Durango, Colo., the retail recovery has been even stronger, with city sales tax data showing 15 consecutive months of year-over-year improvement. Main Avenue is home to several new shops, including a yogurt shop, a wine bar and a sports clothing retailer.
Bloomfield is in an entirely different situation, with construction of U.S. Highway 64 expected to drag on throughout the summer.
For Four Corners auto retailers, gasoline prices will prove crucial, said Clif Horace, owner of Horace Automotive Group, a company with dealerships in Farmington and Santa Fe.
"I was expecting a good year to be up at least 15-20 percent from what I was last year, easily but it's all about gas," Horace said. "If gas goes up, it just sucks the little extra money that's in (consumers') pocket.
"There's a psychological thing," he added.
Horace is having a good year so far, but if gas goes much higher, customers will pull back, he said.
"I feel like the consumer will pull us out of the recession, but the consumer is being very affected by gas," he said.
The National Retail Federation forecasts retail sales to rise 3.4 percent across the nation in 2012.
In February, retail sales rose an impressive 8.6 percent compared to the same month a year ago.
"Pent-up demand is turning desires into needs, which is one reason why consumers have begun opening up their wallets," Jack Kleinhenz, the federation's chief economist, said in a prepared statement. "There is no doubt that the economy is on the upswing, certainly compared to six months ago. Stronger-than-expected February sales and an improving labor market paint a bright picture of the U.S. economy, although the impact rising gas prices will have on the economy's momentum remains unclear."
Gas prices in Durango hit $3.771 per gallon for regular gasoline on Thursday, a 48-cent increase from a month ago, according to AAA.
Compared to a year ago, that price was up 21 cents per gallon. AAA does not track average gas prices for Farmington.
President Barack Obama was in New Mexico last week touting the administration's record on energy production. Obama has pushed what he calls an "all-of-the-above energy strategy" that couples oil and gas production with incentives for alternative sources.
Horace blamed the high gas prices on speculators.
"There's no reason for it to be heading up the way it is," he said. "It's very frustrating."