Go-go or no-go Christmas?

Judy Cabrera of Norton, Mass., is cutting way back on Christmas shopping this year because the economy — her economy — is so tight.

"Gas just went up 20 cents a gallon, again," she says. "Instead of $30 to fill up the tank, it's close to $40. There's only so many numbers of dollars here."

Ronald Perkins of Fort Lauderdale says the economy — his economy — is just fine, and he and his wife won't change their generous Christmas spending this year. "We're apt to say, 'Let's do a cruise,' as a gift to each other," he says.

For consumers and the retailers who serve them, this may be a Christmas of those who "have" and those who "have less." In a tightening economy, some consumers are hurt more than others. Rising costs for gasoline and food affect people with lower incomes more.

Analysts expect consumers who have more money to spend as much as last year, maybe more. Consumers who have less money will spend less than last year, maybe the same.

"Some consumers just have bigger wallets," says Tom Spencer, a vice president of Claritas, a consumer marketing research firm based in San Diego.

Retailers, too, will be split. Those that serve a larger group of higher-income consumers are likely to prosper. Those that serve more lower-income consumers may be squeezed.

To find out which retailers may be hurt this holiday season, Claritas analyzed consumers by income and shopping habits for USA TODAY. The analysis, focused on shoppers who went to a store, not those who shopped online, found that:

•Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom jwa, Lord & Taylor and Bloomingdale's, in that order, have the highest concentrations of high-income customers. High income is defined as households that earn more than $100,000 a year. People who earn more than $100,000 are nearly 2½ times more likely to shop at Neiman Marcus than the average U.S. household.

•Bloomingdales, Macy's m, Marshalls, Saks Fifth Avenue and Express have the highest concentration of middle-income customers, households that earn $50,000 to $100,000 a year. Shoppers at Macy's, for instance, are 40% more likely to earn $75,000 to $100,000 a year than the U.S. population.

•Kmart shld, Lane Bryant, Wal-Mart wmt, ShopKo and J.C. Penney jcp stores had the highest concentration of lower-income customers, households that earn less than $50,000 a year. Customers of Wal-Mart, for instance, are nearly twice as likely to earn $20,000 to $40,000 than are customers of Macy's.

Still, all stores that serve more lower-income consumers won't necessarily be hurt this holiday shopping season. Some may thrive as they lure the worried, murky middle of American consumers.

Those shoppers may move "down the scale" to a lower-price store, says Chris Donnelly, a partner in the retail practice of Accenture, a consulting firm.

Even consumers at the top of the scale may shop at retailers one step down if they feel they should be saving money this year.

"A lot of people will shift down," Donnelly says. "The less affluent may pull back in their shopping, but the slightly more affluent shopper might move down (in retailers) and look for more value in what they buy."

Economic worries — for some

News of mortgage lending woes, lower housing prices, higher gasoline costs and auto industry layoffs have some consumers worried that a recession could be coming.

According to a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll of 1,014 adults on Nov. 11-14, 25% of Americans say they will spend less on Christmas gifts this year than they did last year.

The National Retail Federation, saying consumers will be cautious this year, projects holiday spending will rise only 3.7% from 2006.

Yet, when politicians, business people and the media talk about the "American consumer," you'd think that all 300 million people in the USA act in unison in reaction to economic news.

When the stock market goes up 200 points one day and down 200 points the next, everyone acts like everyone cares. But consumers have their individual economies, their own job security, their own income levels, and only about 48% of Americans are invested in the stock market.

"There's a difference between the Wall Street perception of the economy and the Main Street perception," Donnelly says. "Unemployment is reasonably good; consumer spending is reasonably good. There's a difference between concern and reality."

The economy can be personal

How a consumer is doing personally can have more effect on his or her holiday spending than what's happening with the economy on a national level. But because they have less disposable income, those who have lower and middle incomes are more affected by rising gasoline prices and rising costs for food, health care and education.

"There's no question that the upper-end consumer is going to be less affected by the economic distractions going on right now," says Marshal Cohen, analyst at NPD Group, a retail consulting firm.

In fact, since 1990, the percentage of people who say they will spend more than $1,000 on Christmas gifts has risen from 17% to 32%, according to USA TODAY/Gallup polling.

"Not everyone out there is trying to buy a house; not everyone out there has a variable-rate mortgage; and not everyone out there has less income in their pocket or is worried about their job," Cohen says.

The difference in retailers

Neiman Marcus' customers are more likely to be lawyers than Wal-Mart's customers.

Twice as likely.

Wal-Mart customers are more likely to be police and military families or in the food-preparation business than Macy's or Neiman's customers.

But that doesn't mean that wealthy people don't shop at Wal-Mart. They do. It's just that the percentage of Wal-Mart customers who are wealthy isn't as big as the percentage of those who shop at Macy's or Neiman's who are.

Of Wal-Mart's customers, 17.6% of households earn more than $100,000 a year, according to Claritas and Mediamark Research. Of Macy's customers, 32.7% of households earn more than $100,000. At Neiman's, nearly 41% do.

But big box retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target and Kmart may benefit this year as middle-income consumers feel squeezed and start shopping purely on price, says Spencer of Claritas, a unit of the Nielsen company. Retailers in the middle may lose customers to discounters but gain some from higher-end stores as even the wealthy shop for less-expensive gifts.

Within each category of retailer, there will be winners and losers, Donnelly says. The winning retailers will get the shopping equation just right: a good store experience, solid service and competitive prices. They'll meet the expectations that their consumers have.

"There's a lot of overlap in retailing," Spencer says. "You can shop at Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom and Wal-Mart."

In fact, the NRF found that the majority of the 7,000 shoppers it surveyed — 51% — said low prices or discounts are what lure them to a store.

"The lower-end consumer isn't going to shop less; they're going to buy less-expensive things," argues Cohen, of NPD. Last year, the hot items were HDTVs and video game consoles that cost hundreds of dollars. This year, it will be games for those video game players that cost $20 or $30, he says.

'What more do we need?'

Cabrera, who lives in Massachusetts, and Marie Lehman of Hillsborough, Calif., are on opposite ends of the country and opposite ends of the economic scale. But this holiday season, they're aiming for the same thing when they spend money: simplicity.

Lehman isn't cutting back on her holiday spending, but she's changing the types of gifts she buys.

"We're trying to give people things they need, not extravagant gifts. Things like magazine subscriptions, or a framed photograph of their child," she says. "My friends have everything they want or need already."

Cabrera is feeling pinched this Christmas by higher gas prices and higher food prices. She'll buy for the kids in her extended family, but not the adults.

She and her husband won't splurge on themselves this year.

"We're not buying any new decorations or anything else," Cabrera says. "We've downscaled and downsized. I mean, what else do we really need?" But she will spend on a big turkey and all the fixings for the family meal.

Both women are part of a consumer-shopping trend toward more personal "experience-building" rather than traditional gift giving, says Ken Nisch, chairman of JGA, a brand consulting firm in Southfield, Mich.

That's a trend that could hurt retailers this season, he says. He thinks consumers will look at trips or group events such as cooking lessons as family gifts. "People are going to be more interested in buying experiences for their families than just a new sweater."