When Lafayette’s December sales tax numbers came in, there was a collective sigh of relief. The parish was more than holding on, as taxable retail sales rose 3 percent in 2008 while some communities across the country were experiencing major declines. 

That local optimism, however, is now clouded by a 7 percent drop in January compared with the same month a year ago — falling from $425 million to $396 million.

So is there reason to be concerned? Not just yet, as there may be more to the January 2009 numbers than meets the eye.

“I’ve been anticipating that,” says Brian Lutz, a spokesman for the Mall of Acadiana. Lutz says even after a year of revenue growth in 2008 at the mall, he expected January sales to be flat — at best — in light of the larger than normal increase in January 2008 compared with January 2007. His theory hinges on Mardi Gras. “We ran flat in January [2009],” he says. “And at this time, flat is good.”

Because Mardi Gras 2008 fell on Feb. 5, most holiday shopping took place in January 2008, Lutz explains. “Mardi Gras shopping is strong; the mall had a huge increase in January last year,” he says. And the Mall of Acadiana wasn’t alone: That holiday shopping translated into a 10 percent increase in parish retail sales January 2008 versus January 2007; last January’s retail sales broke a record for the month.

This year, however, Mardi Gras was Feb. 24 — which means local shoppers likely did their Mardi Gras spending that same month.

What’s more, a closer analysis of the numbers reveals that January 2009 is second only to January last year. This January’s sales are still 2.43 percent higher than January ’07 and 2.13 percent higher than January ’06. Dig deeper, and Lutz’s theory may hold even more water.

While it’s not one of the largest categories of sales, the miscellaneous/other group, which would include some Mardi Gras purchases, is down by the biggest percentage. It’s off 30 percent, or about $7 million. As expected, the automotive and lumber/building materials groups, which are the largest, are down 15.5 percent and 14.3 percent, respectively. Each slid by about $10 million.

The only two groups posting gains over January a year ago are food and general merchandise categories. They’re both up 8 percent.

So does this mean we’ll bounce back in February? Lutz is on the fence. “February is going to be a weird animal,” he says. Analysts across the country were reporting a slowdown in Valentine’s Day spending, and Lutz is fairly certain locals spent less this Mardi Gras. February figures are also likely to reflect the fear instilled in locals now that word of oilfield layoffs and unpaid furloughs in the oil patch are coming to light. And the doom and gloom attitude about the nation’s economy may be hitting home.

We’ll know soon enough.

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