FORT WAYNE – Holiday shoppers might not put a lump of coal in retailers stockings, but dont expect diamonds either.
A sobering survey from Citigroup Inc. of New York showed Americans across all income levels expect to spend less this Christmas season. The poll was conducted among 2,001 people.
Despite that, the National Retail Federation anticipates holiday sales to increase 2.3 percent – $447.1 billion – from last year. A Ball State University study jibes with the Washington, D.C., associations figures. And last week the Commerce Department reported retail sales rose 1.2 percent in October – the fourth consecutive month posting a gain.
But dig a little deeper and the numbers reveal that the big boost in Octobers retail sales mostly can be attributed to an improving automotive industry. Take vehicles out of the equation and retail sales grew just 0.4 percent.
Actually, the nations big retailers reported lackluster sales last month, and analysts blamed some of the weakness on an unusually warm October that lured shoppers to activities away from the malls.
The International Council of Shopping Centers of New York said its index of sales in October turned in its poorest showing since last April.
Retailers are aware and on the attack. Black Friday is four days away, but sales, promotions and teasers began around Halloween.
Best Buy, Sears, Target and Wal-Mart are offering 20 percent or more off electronics, toys and other items. Wal-Mart, the worlds largest retailer, is offering free shipping on 60,000 items with no minimum purchase.
To say much is at stake is an understatement.
For some retailers, the holiday season can represent 25 percent to 40 percent of annual sales. In 2009, yuletide sales represented 19.1 percent of total retail industry sales.
Meijer spokesman Frank Guglielmi said Halloween didnt scare away shoppers, a trend he anticipates will continue through the next month.
Were very optimistic, he said, During Halloween, we saw some bright spots in how customers are reacting. We started our Black Friday ads early, so our customers can go to our website and see what will be on sale. From our perspective, we want to make it as easy as possible to shop.
The Walker, Mich.-based retailer also has increased the number of Door Buster promotions the day after Thanksgiving. The deals run from 5 a.m. to noon and include a $99 Sony Blue-ray disc player. The retailer also is selling a 32GB iPod Touch for $295 that includes a $50-off coupon that patrons can use toward any merchandise, beginning Sunday and running through Christmas Eve.
Were trying to provide flexibility for our customers, Guglielmi said. Instead of having them buy only the things we have on sale, we are allowing them to get the things they want.
Indiana Retail Council President Grant Monahan said stores must be aggressive. Projections for holiday sales are modest at best, so they need to do all they can to attract customers.
The economic activity shows that people are cautious and protective of their wallets and will remain that way over the holiday season, he said.
Retailers arent expecting a decline in sales from 2009, so were headed in the right direction, but have a long way to go, Monahan said.
Fort Wayne stay-at-home mom Elsi Ku said the economy has her uncertain about how much to spend for Christmas.
Umm, not sure, said the 37-year-old who will shop for her 2-year-old daughter. Im just not sure.
Changing the spending habits of shoppers such as David Woodcox is another challenge for store owners. The 62-year-old Fort Wayne retiree said he doesnt get caught up in the all the Black Friday hoopla; he sticks to his game plan.
I wont be spending anymore than I did last year, he said. I already know who I have to buy for and it stays that way pretty much every year.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.