Times are tough, as respondents reminded us, and a few fessed up to having debt left over from last holiday season. Surprisingly, the belt-tightening has not dampened enthusiasm for the holidays -- 87 percent of consumers remain hopeful that the upcoming season will be as happy or happier than last year.
Even though many stores have been featuring Christmas items since well before Halloween, most shoppers are not taking the bait. Only 31 percent reported that they had started their holiday shopping. And one-quarter of those asked said that they expect to be making purchases in the days leading up to Christmas and beyond. That follows a pattern we've seen for the previous two years in good times (2007) and bad (2008).
As in 2008, consumers anticipate spending less this holiday season. This year 65 percent of Americans plan to cut back on overall holiday expenses. The anticipated decrease in spending comes on top of already dramatic cutbacks that occurred last year when 76 percent of those surveyed said they planned to cut back their spending. The result is that shoppers are shrinking their gift lists and narrowing the types of products they shop for.
The first person to fall off the gift list is likely the person making it. More than three-quarters (78 percent) of adults who are cutting back on gifts will be buying less for themselves. Half are also cutting back on gifts for others -- friends and some family members are the next to go. Grandchildren and grandparents stand the best chance of getting something this season and only 16 percent plan to skimp on gifts to pets and teachers.
We took a peek at some of those shortened gift lists and -- spoiler alert -- the top items that adults are planning to give this year are clothing (52 percent) and electronics (51 percent). In the electronics category, video games or accessories topped the lists followed by game systems and MP3 players or iPods.
Clothing was both the favorite and least favorite gift received last year: 37 percent of respondents were disappointed and 20 percent were pleased with their apparel. If you're planning to give clothing, stay away from socks and slippers, which were a bummer for recipients. Boots, on the other hand, make that foot, were a newcomer on the list of favorite clothing, joined by purses and pajamas.
Overall, shoppers said they are planning to shop for fewer types of products so expect to see less jewelry and fewer small appliances under the tree. There are exceptions, of course, including laptops, netbooks and desktop computers, GPS navigators, and smart phones and cell phones.
Gift cards tied with electronics for the most wanted gift this year, a departure from last year when electronics trumped gift cards by nine percentage points. Meanwhile, fewer folks (46 percent) are planning to give plastic. Perhaps they've been paying attention to our cautions about gift cards, which often saddle recipients with fees, expiration dates, and other gotchas.
Of those who were given gift cards last season, 65 percent say they typically spend more than the value of the card. Then there are those who didn't redeem them at all (another reason we think they're a bad idea). One quarter of those given gift cards last holiday season still have at least one they haven't used and 11 percent of recipients have four or more.
Maybe they can re-gift them this year -- that's another trend we're seeing. Over a third of respondents (36 percent) admitted to re-gifting something they had been given -- a big jump over the 24 percent who said so in 2007. Socks anyone?
Now about that debt. As of early October, when the survey was conducted, six percent of adults -- or about 13.5 million Americans -- were still carrying debt from last year's holiday season. In households with children under 12 years old, 10 percent were carrying debt.
From now until the end if the year we'll be offering holiday help including advice from our resident shopping expert Tod Marks, featured in the video above, who will be posting on this blog frequently.
—Mary H.J. FarrellMethodology: The Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted a telephone survey of a nationally representative probability sample of telephone households. 1,000 interviews were completed among adults aged 18+. Interviewing took place over October 15-18, 2009. The margin of error is +/- 3% points at a 95% confidence level.