On the eve of the holiday shopping season, Americans -- particularly the better-off -- plan to spend more on gifts this year, a positive sign for retailers in their busiest season. But cyber retailers may have a challenge: The number of people who say they'll be shopping online is flat again, for the second year in a row.
Overall, Americans plan to spend an average of $1,096 on holiday gifts this season, up $207 from last year -- the largest year-on-year increase since the boom shopping season in 1999, the last time this annual survey hit the $1,000 mark.
Spending plans don't guarantee a strong shopping season; actual consumer spending can depend on the prices and products people see in the stores, the effect of marketing campaigns and economic conditions as they develop. But robust spending plans are surely a good sign.
The National Retail Federation this week raised its holiday shopping forecast, projecting 6 percent growth in sales over last year, up from its September forecast of a 5 percent increase. NRF said this was its first-ever mid-season adjustment in a holiday sales forecast; it cited strong retail sales in October and falling gasoline prices.
This year's high season also is a relatively long one -- for the first time since 2001, there are five weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Higher spending plans in this ABC News survey are driven almost entirely by wealthier Americans. Those with household incomes of $50,000 or more plan to spend an average of $1,344 on holiday gifts, up a very substantial $243 from last year. Lower-income Americans plan to spend far less, $757, up an insignificant $17 over last year.
One change this year is that women plan to outspend men: For the past four years, men have planned to spend more than women on average -- last year by $143. This year, women plan to spend an average of $152 more than men.
While expected spending is up, online shopping plans are flat. Thirty-one percent of Americans plan to do at least some of their holiday shopping online, the same as it was last year and in 2003 alike, after an earlier period of sharp growth. Online buyers, moreover, say the channel accounts for just a fraction of their holiday shopping. Just two in 10 online shoppers say they'll do all or most of their shopping over the Internet.
Consumer confidence is lower than it was this time last year, which has led some analysts to predict somewhat lower sales growth (last year retail sales grew at 6.7 percent). But there's recently been a slight gain in consumer optimism; confidence (as always) is much higher in better-off groups; and the price of gasoline, a major irritant to consumers, has fallen sharply from its post-Katrina high -- from $3.07 per gallon then to $2.20 now -- potentially freeing up cash for other purposes.
Also, while fuel prices are a negative driver on consumer confidence, there are other, countervailing forces: Unemployment is low, personal incomes are growing, core inflation is fairly quiescent, and consumer interest rates are still reasonable by historical standards.
Driven by the improvement among better-off Americans, overall spending plans are now their highest, in inflation-adjusted terms, in polls since 1999. Today's $1,039 compares with an average of $939.