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Holiday Forecasts Are Coming Thick And Fast

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Having fun yet? Believe it or not, some people enjoy the annual ritual of holiday shopping. In a Rasmussen Reports survey, 45 percent of adults said it's "a fun experience," vs. 37 percent calling it "an unpleasant chore" and 17 percent rating it somewhere in between.

If you're shopping for holiday-sales forecasts, there's ample variety to choose from. Gloom is the keynote of polls that ask people whether they'll spend more or less than they did a year ago. A WSL Strategic Retail survey found 53 percent of respondents saying they'll spend less on gifts this year than in 2004, vs. 9 percent planning to shell out more. In a Gallup poll, "spend less" beat "spend more" by 26 percent to 14 percent (with the rest saying they'll spend the same as last year). Before marketers despair, though, they should note that such surveys invariably skew toward "spend less." As Gallup observes, "For some reason, Americans have been saying that they are going to spend less for holiday gifts in the current year compared to the previous year for as long as Gallup has been asking the question." Think of it as a holiday tradition.

When surveys ask people how much they'll spend on gifts in the current year, a cheerier picture emerges. Comparing 2005's answers with 2004's, Gallup found a 4.5 percent rise in consumers' stated gift-spending intentions (to $763 from $730). Likewise, polls fielded by August Partners for The Macerich Co. show a 7.8 percent rise in the average dollar figures consumers gave in 2005 vs. 2004 ($655 vs. $608). Incidentally, the National Retail Federation (NRF) last week issued an upward adjustment to its forecast of holiday sales: It now predicts a 6 percent rise, up from the 5 percent gain it had forecast in the dreary days of September.

The Internet is expected to continue its inexorable rise as a holiday-shopping venue. In a play on the Black Friday nickname for the shopping day after Thanksgiving, the NRF says the start of the following week has become Cyber Monday. Many people shop from work on Cyber Monday, it says, making use of the faster and more-secure Internet access they have there. A Conference Board report, meanwhile, predicts that 34 percent of consumers will buy holiday gifts online this year.

While much has been made of the effect gas prices might have on holiday shopping, a Maritz poll notes another reason why wallets are light: Among those planning to spend less on gifts, nearly one-fifth said their charitable donations for hurricane relief are a factor. The same could be said about the outpouring of donations prompted by last December's tsunami in Asia. (Victims of the more recent earthquake in Kashmir have been left to fend largely for themselves.) People who'll cut back on gifts because their funds are depleted by hurricane-related donations will spend an average of $217 less than they otherwise would. Of course, those who boosted their giving could get some of it back in the form of a bigger tax refund. Companies that have a weak Christmas will want to be ready to profit from any tax-season boomlet.

The emergence of gift cards has already been shifting some retail activity from one year's fourth quarter into the next year's first quarter. Though sometimes derided as the lazy man's last resort, the cards are popular among prospective recipients. In an Accenture survey, 42 percent of respondents said they'd rather get a gift card than a gift; 26 percent would be equally pleased either way. One bonus for retailers: 45 percent of shoppers spend more than the face value of a gift card when they go to buy something with it.