Sure, consumers are sick of bad news and just want to go shopping -- but they're still waiting for the recession's other shoe to drop.
And that means that this holiday season, shoppers will be very practical: giving food and other basics, cutting friends and co-workers off the gift list, and even using the gift cards they got for birthdays and graduations to pay for their holiday shopping. Analyzing new survey data, the National Retail Federation identifies 10 holiday shopping trends:
1. Americans aren't feeling an end to the recession. Regardless of the stock market's recovery or of economists' opinions, the average holiday shopper will spend $682.74, a 3.2 percent drop from last year's $705.01, according to a new NRF survey. "They're going to be watching what the unemployment [rate] is doing, and that's going to be their monitor about when the recession is over," said Phil Rist, executive VP of market research firm BIGResearch, which did the polling.
2. This year, it's all about the economy. Two-thirds of families say the economic situation will affect their holiday spending, said NRF VP Ellen Davis. Many will give group gifts to couples and families, and more practical gifts; some are making their own, Davis said. In this year's survey, the NRF added a question about thrift stores; the 11 percent of shoppers who mentioned them was a higher percentage than the group expected. Another surprise: many shoppers say they plan to use gift cards to pay for holiday shopping.
Many surveyed say they've cut down their gift list, and will instead bake, or host friends and co-workers at home for eggnog, said Rist. Fifteen percent of employed Americans know someone who's been laid off, which makes this a more practical solution for those who worry about how others will reciprocate a gift, he said.
3. Sales and promotions are king. More than 50 percent of Americans say sales or everyday low prices influence where they shop, said Davis. Retailers have scaled back inventory to levels not seen since 2003, to avoid panic markdowns, she said, "so what we're expecting is a bit of a dance" between stores and shoppers.
4. Cash is king, too. More than 25 percent of shoppers are paying with cash, the same rate as last year, but more than in 2007, said Rist. Shoppers are also using more debit cards and layaway to avoid using credit cards, which have recently increased minimum payments and interest rates, said Davis.
5. There will be less spending outside the family. While buying gifts for family members will drop only 2 percent, to $387.06 from $395.15 last year, the gift budget is down sharply for friends ($66.77, from $80.13) and co-workers ($19.26, from $22.63).
6. Candy and food spending is up ($90.26, from $80.28 in 2008), while other non-gift categories declined. Spending on decorations is expected to be $40.75, down from $43.45 last year, while greeting cards will drop to $26.77 from $27.39, and flowers to $17.05 from $19.10. Rist feels this is a factor of the trends for more practical gifts, like food, and of people inviting friends over instead of giving them gifts.
7. Giving gift cards is still popular, for two reasons, Davis said: Recipients can use them to buy necessities later, and shoppers can use them to treat themselves. One popular category that consumers have cut sharply, Rist noted, is restaurant gift cards; the NRF expects to have more research on that category this season.
8. The Internet influences one-third of all gift shopping. Shoppers go online to comparison-shop and to locate stores carrying items in one of every three gift purchases this holiday season, according to the data. The NRF's online arm, Shop.org, will release a study Thursday with more findings about online shopping, Davis said.
9. Surprise! 18-to-24-year-olds love department stores, and 70 percent expect to shop at them this season, the poll determined. The bad news: shopping there doesn't mean they'll buy there. Davis guessed that brand-conscious youngsters see these stores as a place to get high-quality items around the holidays. The stores are making an effort, with more sales and private-label merchandise this year, but young shoppers tend to shop late, which complicates their marketing efforts, she said.
10. We're not shopping for much beyond gifts. The number of consumers planning non-gift purchases this season is 53 percent, down from 57 percent last year -- and they plan to spend around $100, down from $120. Shoppers are just more practical, Rist said; 50 percent of those polled they're trying to shop more carefully, up from 38 percent who said that in 2008. "It's not necessarily in the budget this year to treat yourself," he said.
There may be pent-up demand in the market, but it won't help this holiday season. The unemployment rate -- nearly 10 percent and rising -- is still overwhelming consumers' confidence. "They're tired of the bad news, but it keeps coming," Rist said. "They're waiting for the next shoe to drop."
Holiday shopping top 10 trends: Food, group gifts, eggnog parties