7 Unusual Economic Indicators

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Black Friday marks not only the beginning of the biggest shopping period of the year, but also a crucial economic indicator into consumer sentiment.

U.S. households are expected to spend an average of $384 on Christmas gifts this holiday season, according to a survey by the Conference Board released Tuesday. This figure, based on a sample of 5,000 households, is slightly less than last year's estimate of $390 per household.

Financial analysts often find these figures inconclusive when they are trying to gauge the strength of the economic recovery.

"We try to leave as little to chance as possible," said Bill Strazzullo, partner and chief marketing strategist with Bell Curve Trading. "I'm not a big advocate for using these signs for investment decisions."

Black Friday Comes Early

Though Strazzullo does not rely on consumer sentiment in his equity research, he said economists will glance at a range of data to help make decisions.

Analysts suggested these seven categories may give clues about the health of the economy:

1. Gambling

In 2009, total gaming revenues declined for the second consecutive year to $30.74 billion, down 5.5 percent from 2008, according to the American Gaming Association.

While this may seem like negative news for the economy, as consumers want to save rather than chance away their money, Michael Pollock, managing director of Spectrum Gaming Group, said gambling is a lagging economic indicator.

"When people gamble, it has to be a function of discretionary income and the wealth effect," Pollock said. "So after people's homes values diminish and their stock portfolios shrink, they spend less on gambling."

Pollock said it may take as long as two years for the gambling industry to pick up again, if the economy is currently improving.

2. Chocolate

Chocolate can be a quintessential comfort food, sales of which could increase during a downturn. The Hershey Company projected full-year sales to increase 7 percent. But Doug Hart, partner in the retail and consumer product practice at BDO USA, also said people tend to like chocolate no matter what the circumstances.

"Chocolate sales have tended to be recession-proof, so even as consumers need to close their wallets, they don't seem to scrimp on finding moderate, inexpensive ways to treat themselves," said Hart. Hart emphasized that high-end chocolate from Swiss chocolate makers is especially recession proof.

3. Fashion Accessories

In an economic slump, Hart said, there is higher demand and supply of fashion accessories, which have a lower price point than clothing.

"In the beginning of 2009, retailers were beginning to allocate more of their merchandise assortment to lower-point accessories," which coincided closely with the economic downturn, Hart said.

He said that during the worst months of the recession, retailers promoted accessories such as belts, scarves and bracelets.

"Even though it's a recession, consumers still wanted to buy something to dress up their existing outfits," said Hart.

If you assess the economy based on fashion accessories, Hart said, this year is looking more positive. Hart said the overall accessory category was "very strong" for the first quarter of this year.

Hart also said his firm conducted a survey of the chief marketing officers of 100 of the largest retailers and there was a 2.8 percent increase in holiday sales predictions over the previous year and still larger than 2008 levels.

4. Movie Theater Snacks

Snacks from concession stands can offer greater insight to the movie industry and the economy than ticket sales, according to Stephen Bronars, economist with Welch Consulting.

Whereas people may want to watch movies in both recessions and booms, movie-goers tend be more careful with snack purchases. Bronars said concession stand sales are based on large price mark-ups and comprise about 30 percent of movie theater revenues.

Bronars pointed to data from Regal Entertainment Group, the movie theater company, as evidence. From 2007 to 2009, revenue from ticket sales increased 10.4 percent, but revenue from concessions was up only 5.5 percent, which Bronars said showed the cautionary spending at snack stands.

5. Alcohol

Like chocolate, alcohol can sell well in both low and good times. But the recent decisions of many states and municipalities to allow or expand Sunday sales of alcohol may be an indication of the desperate condition of local and state economies.

ABCNews.com reported that more states and municipalities are expanding distribution of alcohol permits for more revenue.

Earlier this month, the state legislature in Michigan allowed liquor sales to begin at 7 a.m. on Sundays, instead of the previous time of noon.

Currently, 36 states allow Sunday sales of distilled spirits, an increase of 14 states since 2002, according to Lisa Hawkins of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

6. Company Holiday Parties

Despite the fact that states may be expanding the sale of alcohol, companies are not in a celebratory mood. This year is the worst holiday party slump in the past 22 years, according to the firm, Amrop Battalia Winston.

Only 79 percent of businesses of a cross section of more than 100 firms will have a holiday celebration, the lowest levels since the company began conducting its annual survey 22 years ago.

More than two-thirds of the companies holding parties said the holiday events will be "employee-only," precluding invitations to clients, families and guests.

Dale Winston, chairwoman of Amrop Battalia Winston, said she was surprised that this year's level was even lower than the 81 percent in 2008 and 2009.

"I think there's a lot of uncertainty in the country," Winston said. "Even though companies are doing well, with the unemployment at the highest of most of our lifetimes, I think companies feel like it's not the time to celebrate."

7. Family Restaurant Outings

When holding to a household budget, many families may eat out only for special occasions. But when families feel positively about their financial prospects, restaurants reap the benefits.

This summer, restaurant visits from families increased after three years of declines, according to the market research company, the NPD Group. The company released a report that found parties with children increased by 1 percent from the previous year. Family traffic to restaurants began declining in January of 2007.

During the height of the recession, visitors refrained from ordering side dishes and desserts, while alcohol purchases increased, according to Kim McLynn of the NPD Group.

"We're starting to see light at the end of the tunnel, which is certainly an indicator of healthier times," McLynn said.