Shopping on high

Posted: Dec 27, 2002 12:00 AM
My wife, Judy, and I went shopping this past weekend at a high-end Westport, Conn., clothier called Mitchell's. This is a family-owned operation where longtime customers are known on a first-name basis, and where all visitors are waited on hand and foot. Billy Mitchell, the proprietor and a great salesman, said the store was having a good -- but not fabulous -- Christmas selling season. If our shopping experience there was any indication, Billy was being modest. The store was crowded. The sales force on the floor and behind the counter was hustling just to keep up. The atmosphere at Mitchell's reminded me of what it's like on a really good trading floor on Wall Street. Like seasoned traders, the store's staff formed a perpetual people-in-motion machine, and they performed with an air of courtesy and respect. Shopping at Mitchell's was a pleasure: Judy bought a beautiful formal dress for an upcoming reception, and I bought some very comfortable penny loafers. A few days later, I did some last-minute Christmas shopping in New York City. I stopped into Loro Piana, a wonderful top-end shop for women's finery (it also has some men's items on the third floor). Everything at Loro Piana costs a fortune. But the scarves, earmuffs, mufflers and sweaters are all exquisitely made and oh-so-beautiful. Despite the price tags, top salesman and old friend Dan Flynn told me the store was having its best holiday season in history -- believe it or not. A couple of blocks north on Madison Avenue, I dropped off a sport jacket for alterations at Ralph Lauren Polo. Herb Phillips, a salesman there, told me the store was having its best December in history. Go figure. I bought a maroon tie with yellow bulls and bears to celebrate. My last stop was Turnbull and Asser. I picked up a couple more ties, including a nice formal dinner-suit bowtie. Michael Marshall, who has always been my man there, said this was Turnbull's best December since the New York shop opened three years ago. Was it just me, or was I onto something? Everybody, it seems, has their own little poll about retail shopping and the holiday season. But my little tour of some upper-end establishments was confirming for me what I've believed for some time: that this economy is doing better than most analysts are leading us to believe. A shopper I met seemed to agree. On the second floor at Turnbull, I ran into a charming man from Palm Beach. He said he watches me and my partner Jim Cramer every night on CNBC, and he shares my optimism about the future of our country, our economy and the stock market. He told me he agrees that the market is 40 percent undervalued. I mentioned that it's a tough call (not many of my television guests, outside of my mentor Arthur Laffer, agree with my optimism). But I believe this shopper was right on the money. The latest Commerce Department numbers for the month of November show stronger-than-expected consumer spending. It's the best level since July. The report also reveals that wage and salary income is rising 4.5 percent over the past three months, and that so-called spendable income after taxes and inflation is up 6 percent during the past year. Those are pretty darn good numbers, particularly if you consider that core inflation is barely above 1 percent. The Milton Friedman money supply -- a measure of spending, saving and investing -- is growing rapidly, confirming this positive news from the Commerce Department. Productivity, meanwhile, is breathtakingly high inside the economy, another sign of growth and profits. By now, shoppers have all rushed home with their presents, marking the close of a not-so-usual holiday season. American shoppers, of course, had a lot going against them this year -- from war anxieties and the constant threat of terrorism to corporate corruption, accounting fraud and a rocky stock market. And yet, through it all, shoppers shopped -- showing the world that nothing can stop this free-market economy. This Christmas, a steadfast and resolute George W. Bush is striking a blow for democracy and freedom, as he leads the country in the war on terrorism. Next month, it's expected he will strike a blow for the free market when he announces a spate of investor-class tax cuts that will encourage even more spending, saving and investment. President Bush, with his brand of moral strength and compassion, has proven to be a truly great leader -- and he's one of many things we can be thankful for this year. But from my vantage point, I'm also thankful for the American shopper. We all deserve a big hand as this challenging year comes to a close. Job well done.