Just What I Didn’t Want, Frugal Self-Image, Etc.

Enough about the holidays as a season of joy. What about the holidays as a season of disappointment? In polling commissioned by Deloitte & Touche USA, 24 percent of adults said they “don’t think they’ll get what they want for the holidays this year,” even though 69 percent will brandish a list or tell folks what they want. Women are more likely than men (42 percent vs. 34 percent) to think they’ll get what they want, perhaps because they’re also more likely (73 percent vs. 63 percent) to tell people what they want. (Note to men: Maybe we ought to rethink the whole uncommunicative-male routine.) Marketers should launch ad campaigns in January that address embittered consumers whose wishes were ignored by their loved ones. As it is, disappointed recipients don’t take matters lying down: 28 percent of respondents returned or exchanged gifts last year. The findings lend credence to the concept that it’s better to give than to receive, since receiving is such a hit-and-miss affair. Still, 61 percent of men and 42 percent of women confessed that they view holiday shopping as “a bore or a chore.”

It’s always something. When gas prices spiked earlier this year, that factor surged to the fore of Americans’ financial worries. As you can see from the chart here, which excerpts a Gallup survey, fewer than one adult in 10 now accords gas/energy costs that status. Indeed, just three topics scored in double digits, which indicates how varied people’s chief financial worries can be. (Would you have guessed that more people worry about college expenses than about housing costs?) A mere 4 percent cited taxes as their top financial concern, which helps explain why that subject has lost political steam.

Along with mistletoe and carolers, one of the traditions of the holiday season is polling that asks consumers whether they’ll spend more or less on gifts than they did the previous year. In such surveys, the “spend less” vote consistently tops the “spend more” tally. This year’s holiday-shopping poll by WSL Strategic Retail finds 39 percent of adults saying they’ll spend less this year than last year, while just 11 percent said they’ll spend more. (The rest said they’d spend the same amount as last year.) Likewise a Gallup poll, in which buy-less beat buy-more by 23 percent to 16 percent. The main significance of these numbers lies not in what they say for this season’s retail revenues but what they say about people’s self-perceptions. Despite such poll numbers, holiday spending almost invariably rises from year to year. Yes, some individuals spend less, but given the upward totals, it’s hard to believe they far outnumber those who spend more. Still, people are determined to see themselves as fiscally no-nonsense. In the WSL survey, the “spend less” figure is highest among lower-income consumers, as you’d expect. Even in the $100,000-plus bracket, though, “spend less” edged “spend more” (26 percent vs. 20 percent). People at all salary levels want to sound frugal—indeed, more frugal than last year! Another picture emerges when you simply ask people how much they’ll spend this year and compare the findings to what respondents said a year earlier. This year, Gallup found adults saying they’ll spend an average of $826 on holiday gifts. Last year, the answers averaged out to $763.

As 2006 winds down, a poll conducted for the Hudson professional-staffing firm finds 37 percent of workers expect not to use all of their vacation days. Twenty-four percent have yet to take any time off this year. The number falls to 8 percent among workers who make $100,000-plus, which suggests they have the sense (against all odds) not to view themselves as indispensable. But high-paid workers may not escape the office entirely when they go away. Fielded by Rasmussen Reports, the poll found 87 percent of managers saying they check in with the office when on vacation.

Consumers have more confidence in the banking industry than in the hospitals sector, according to a recent Harris Poll. Maybe the respondents had seen a new ad (above right) for Cambridge Savings Bank, which stresses that its staffers do “Whatever it takes to understand your business.” The sight of a Cambridge Savings banker insinuating herself into a surgical team helps make this point, but doesn’t do much for one’s faith in hospitals. (The doctors seem rather unconcerned that a banker is handing them surgical instruments.) Agency for the effort is Boston-based Fort Franklin, which presumably keeps bankers out of any ads it creates for healthcare clients.

As the Internet extends its share of consumers’ holiday-shopping dollars, there’s also a steady broadening of the categories in which people feel comfortable shopping this way. In a Conference Board survey of people who’ll make holiday purchases online this year, 40 percent said they’d use this channel to buy books, 29 percent to buy movie videos and DVDs and 25 percent to buy music CDs—all the usual e-commerce suspects. But large numbers will also use the Internet to buy toys and games (37 percent), apparel and footwear (35 percent), electronics (19 percent), flowers and gift baskets (15 percent), home/garden items (15 percent) and health and beauty aids (12 percent). In an AOL Shopping/Zogby survey, meanwhile, 60 percent of online shoppers said they’re more likely to buy books via the Internet than in a store. Thirty-five percent said the same about electronics, 31 percent about toys and games and 29 percent about clothing and accessories.

The decline in house prices has yet to make an obvious dent in consumer spending. But what if prices fall another 10 percent in the next year? In a poll conducted for the Boston Consulting Group among adults with household income of $50,000-plus, just 17 percent said they’d cut their spending in that case. And these wimps were largely offset by the 12 percent who said they’d boost their total outlays.