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Partyers call a timeout

Allen Channel’s house is usually party central on Super Bowl Sunday.

Not this year.

With a new baby and a worsening economy, the 39-year-old office manager decided to cancel the get-together he has put on for friends and family for the last eight years.

He’ll still watch as the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals fight for the Super Bowl title -- but not at his Fullerton home. He’ll be at his brother’s house in Oceanside, where the bash will double as his birthday party. It’s quite a change from the up to $500 he used to spend on food and drinks for game day.

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“We’re trying to squeeze every cent that we can out of this,” said Channel, who works for a small real estate company in Santa Monica. “Usually I go all out for the Super Bowl, but I don’t think I can afford that this year.”

With the economy in recession and unemployment on the rise, many Americans will party less hearty for this year’s Super Bowl. One measure of that might be called the Guacamole Index. The California Avocado Commission says Americans will consume 46 million pounds of avocados this weekend, down from nearly 50 million pounds last year.

Beverage retailers are also seeing a downturn. At Mr. Kegs in Huntington Beach, pre-order sales are off at least 20%. “The whole gamut’s down, not necessarily the premium beers more than the domestics,” said company owner Jim Schaffer. “Kegs are a luxury for everybody these days.”

Big-screen TVs? Same story. In a good season, Ken Crane’s can sell 500 televisions the week before the game, which usually matches Christmas as the hottest sales period, said Executive Vice President Pam Crane.

“In this economy, there’s not a lot moving the needle, so the past week was not as good as other Super Bowl weeks of yore,” said Crane, whose company has 10 Southland locations. “Business isn’t booming as it usually would.”

Also taking a hard hit are the seasonal party goods stores, which usually start carrying "#1" signs and football-shaped candies in anticipation of a sales spike.

“Super Bowl is a big deal,” said Don Morgan, executive director of the Party Club of America, a buying coalition for 300 party goods stores. “It’s become quite an event, with a staggering amount of stuff offered.”

The slow Super Bowl buildup comes on top of a losing season for these merchants, which stand at the center of an industry that in 2008 sold $10.4 billion worth of invitations, balloons, gifts and party goods. Their outlook has darkened: Last year, 49.3% of party goods retailers said growth was in their future, down from 57% in 2007, according to an annual survey by Party & Paper Retailer Magazine.

With independent stores and chain retailers struggling, more owners say they now consider online suppliers to be their main competition. More retailers, especially small independents, are collapsing under the strain, said Abby Heugel, the magazine’s managing editor.

Other companies are slicing inventory while trying to expand geographically to widen their customer base to compete with online rivals.

“Everyone’s having a very slow January, hoping that things pick up,” Heugel said. “Customers are cutting back on a lot of things.”

Instead of renting outside facilities for graduation and birthday parties, hosts are planning smaller shindigs at home, Heugel said. “Affordable luxury” -- paper plates and cups designed to look like fine china and porcelain -- is a popular emerging trend, she said.

Party rental agencies, too, are trying to please customers by discounting their inflatable Sesame Street bounce houses, for example, and by allowing orders for early morning deliveries.

“People are holding back,” said Levon Bakalian, manager of Party On! Rentals near Eagle Rock. “They’d rather keep $200 for food on the table instead of spending it on a bouncy.”

Leslie Macias, who owns party supply stores in Van Nuys and Hollywood, said sales were off by 15% last year. In addition to balloons, decorative paper goods and other party supplies, the company also provides balloon arches and other festive accouterments to corporate clients.

Macias, whose sales fell $120,000 in the fourth quarter alone, considered downsizing her Hollywood location, Vine American Party Store, to a smaller space, but said her landlord was so afraid of having a hole he couldn’t fill that they were renegotiating her rent.

Still, she had to lay off three part-time employees and anticipates cutting her hours and extending a storewide sale through this quarter.

“We’ve had some really hard years,” she said. “But this summer was excruciatingly painful. I had no hope and was really thinking I was done.”

Macias has stocked up anyway on football-shaped candles, napkins imprinted with team names and platters painted to look like jerseys in anticipation of business from party-minded fans.

She and other party goods retailers are hoping that Valentine’s Day -- traditionally the top sales day for the balloon industry -- and St. Patrick’s Day will spark a revenue jump. And upcoming graduations and a Halloween that falls on a Saturday this year should be “huge,” said Morgan of the Party Club of America.

Still, buyers for stores are scrounging trade shows for discounts, said Heugel of Party & Paper Retailer Magazine. Suppliers, meanwhile, are offering standard, safe choices instead of presenting a raft of new products that might sell poorly.

“People are being cautious, playing it really close to the chest for the next couple of months to see if things pick up,” she said.

“But parties are an escape, and even though retailers know people can’t spend a lot of money, every day is still somebody’s birthday.”

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tiffany.hsu@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Super Bowl parties by the numbers

* In Los Angeles, an average of $186 will be spent on Super Bowl festivities. Across the country, the average party costs $172.

* 15% of Americans will order takeout or delivery food. Of those, 58% will ask for pizza, 50% will request chicken wings and 20% will order subs or sandwiches.

* Pizza Hut expects to see a 55% jump in sales over a typical Sunday, selling enough pizza to cover more than 50 football fields. Domino’s estimates it will deliver more than 1.1 million pizzas, compared with Papa John’s 750,000-pizza forecast.

* Snack sales are expected to reach $595 million in the two weeks preceding the Super Bowl, with 8.3 million more pounds of tortilla chips sold compared with average sales figures. Sales of rice cakes jumped 11.3% during Super Bowl week last year.

Sources: Visa Inc., National Restaurant Assn., Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Papa John’s, Nielsen Co.


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