ECONOMY

Sales in stores remained subdued in December as Christmas bonuses went to pay off old debts

The reduction in sales has been more than obvious in stores during this festive season while the bad weather that hit Athens at the start of December kept consumers away from the shops. On the other hand, the prolonged good weather and mild temperatures up to the end of November confused both consumers and traders, resulting in a considerable fall in the apparel market, according to Nikolaos Yiannetos, vice president of the Athens Traders Association. «The market has an atmosphere. When the atmosphere is bad, the market does not move, while even events such as the earthquake in Asia could have depressive effects on consumer psychology,» Yiannetos says. A considerable fall was also noted in peripheral shopping centers such as those in Peristeri and Glyfada, mostly attributed to the increase of illicit street trade. Household debts, too, do not allow for luxury or lavish expenditure even during the holidays. It is quite revealing that 25.75 percent of this year’s Christmas bonus typically went toward paying off loans and credit card bills, significantly higher than in 2003 (17 percent), as the data collected by the Center for Consumer Protection (KEPKA) show. Shopkeepers in Athens’s historic center report careful use of credit by their customers, although a considerable number of consumers opted to pay with plastic. «We could theoretically talk about a 60-40 ratio in favor of cash, if we try to compare the use of credit cards and cash,» Yiannetos notes, adding, however, that this was a balance shifting within December: «At the start of the month, for example, the use of cash was broad, just when the Christmas bonus was distributed; toward the end of the month, though, the use of credit cards rose significantly.» Bank of Greece data illustrate the point: During September 2004 debts from credit cards reached 7.258 billion euros in total, up by 23.7 percent from the same month in 2003. Even greater is the sum from the rest of consumer loans, rising to 15.722 billion euros, or 39.1 percent from September 2003. A report by the Consumer Affairs Directorate General of the European Commission showed Greece having the third-highest percentage of households in debt, with 24 percent of Greeks claiming they are overindebted, when the old EU15 average is 16 percent. KEPKA raises the alarm and recommends that consumers use extreme caution by saying: «We do not borrow for luxuries.» As much as 64.05 percent of the Christmas bonus is spent on apparel, food, school fees, loan and card repayments, while saving has dropped from 9.48 percent in 2003 to 5.65 percent in 2004, according to KEPKA data. And yet expenditure on electrical home appliances has increased threefold, while travel expenditure is down by 5.87 percent, as is money spent on festive decoration and entertainment, by 1.67 percent yearly.