Buoyed by consumer confidence that has rocketed to its highest level since 1968, South Sound shoppers left merchants exhilarated by booming sales throughout 1999.

Tacoma Mall management expected a slight slump in sales during 1999 over the previous year due to ongoing construction at the 1.3 million-square-foot facility, including installation of new ceramic tile throughout, new graphic treatments and other amenities. But mall Marketing Director Lynn Castle says the expected downturn never materialized. By October, Tacoma Mall had rolled up an 8 percent gain over the same period in 1998.

“The general feeling we’re getting from our merchants is that at minimum it was a good year,” she says. “We’ll know in a few weeks if it was a great year. The final week before Christmas was phenomenal! We literally had gridlock in our parking lots.”

Castle says sales of gift certificates by mall management were up $80,000 in December alone, a 20 percent increase over 1998. The mall’s 160 permanent stores were augmented by another 40 temporary stores in the mall commons during the holiday shopping period, she says.

“We’ve seen a steady increase in business over the whole year,” says Emily Bird, marketing director of Westfield Shopping Town Capital Mall in Olympia. Bird said much of the buying binge has centered on sales of teen fashions and accessories, which have boomed, helped in part by the addition of five trendy new specialty stores and several temporary outlets that raised the mall’s occupancy to 115 stores.

“The stores that cater to the junior class have had incredible sales this year,” she says. “Things seem to be on a strong upward trend.”

Although final sales figures for the year are not expected for several weeks, Karen Finley, marketing manager for Lakewood Mall, said comparable sales rose in 1999 for stores that were located there throughout both years. “For the most part, sales are up,” she says. “I think that with the economy getting better, low unemployment and consumer confidence being higher now than in 1998, more people are shopping. It’s been pretty consistent over the year.”

Taxable retail sales monitored by the state Department of Revenue reflected that consistency, at least for the first half of the year.

During the first two quarters of 1999 (the most recent figures available), taxable retail-trade-only sales jumped 7.8 percent in King County, 7.2 percent in Pierce County and 7.6 percent in Thurston County.For purposes of the report, the state defines retail-trade-only sales as taxable sales of building materials and hardware, general merchandise, food, motor-vehicle dealers, apparel, furnishings, eating/drinking establishments, and miscellaneous retail stores.

The Conference Board, a New York- based business think-tank, said in December that its index of consumer confidence had risen to 141.4, the second-highest reading in the 32 years the figures have been kept.

Katie Galasso, marketing manager for the 140-store South Hill Mall in Puyallup, said the sounds of ringing cash registers brought big smiles throughout the mall all year as merchants enjoyed what she termed “huge increases” in sales in 1999 over 1998.

“You would think with Internet sales going up that there would be some effect, but that’s not been the case,” she says. “Last year, our merchants were depending on the last 10 days before Christmas (to meet annual sales goals), but this year, by the week after Thanksgiving, the stores already were up over all of 1998. The Bon Marche was up 15 percent over last year.”

By Richard Sypher, Business Examiner staff