Ready or not, here come the holidays

Consumer Reports News: November 06, 2009 04:35 PM

Although the Halloween decorations may still be tacked to the door and most of us haven’t thought about our Thanksgiving menus, it’s not too early to begin talking about holiday shopping and everything that goes with it – the traffic, the crowds, the long lines, and the deals.

 As you may have read here on the Money blog last week, the results of our first holiday poll, designed to gauge what Americans will be buying this season, how much they’ll be spending, and whether the ongoing economic crisis is dampening their festive spirit, indicate that 2009 is likely to be a carbon copy of last year.

Once again, consumers said they plan to cut back this season. Sixty-five percent of those polled, in fact, said they intend to do less traveling, entertaining, and spending on gifts. That’s on top of the three-quarters of consumers who told us last year they planned on tightening their belts.

It’s easy to understand why so many consumers continue to watch their wallets. Statistics released today by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reveal that the unemployment is at its highest since April 1983. In October, unemployment rose from 9.8 percent to 10.2 percent, as the ranks of the nation’s out-of-work force swelled by 558,000, to 15.7 million. In retailing alone, more than 40,000 jobs were lost last month.

Despite the grim statistics, Americans remain largely optimistic. Eighty-seven percent of survey respondents said they expect to be at least as happy this holiday season as they were last year; 33 percent are predicting they’ll be even happier. So hope does spring eternal.

While we can’t do much in the cheer department, we can offer advice on how to take advantage of the latest retailing trends in order to stretch your shopping dollars. And that’s what we’ll be doing over the next couple of months. The results of our second poll, due out soon, promises to offer insights into the nation’s shopping habits – the extent to which the Internet is figuring more prominently in our purchasing plans, where consumers think they’ll find the biggest bargains, and the must-have presents on their Black Friday shopping list. We’ll also be identifying the most annoying aspects about holiday shopping, also based on a nationwide survey.

As you put together your shopping list, here are a few tidbits to keep in mind, based on a closer look at the results of our first poll:

 • Gift cards. They’re one of the most popular gifts to give and receive, yet one of four recipients still haven’t used at least one of the cards they were given last year, mainly because they couldn’t find anything they wanted to buy.  Moreover, 65 percent of those who used their gift cards – especially women -- purchased an item that priced in excess of the card’s face value. That explains why retailers push card sales so aggressively.

 • Who doesn’t like clothes? Clothing is the biggest holiday gift category and, like gift cards, people love to give and receive apparel. But survey respondents told us that clothing also tends to disappoint the most. If you want to be a hero for the holidays avoid giving socks, shirts, sweaters, and ties, the least desireable of garments and accessories. Also making the most-reviled list this year for the first time: slippers.

 • New favorites. Most people tend to give and get the same presents year in and year out. But our poll revealed several new items that made the list of gifts respondents said they’d be thrilled to receive: boots, purses, pajamas, and guns. The latter’s not a typo, and we’ll avoid making any value judgment. We’re just reporting the facts.

• Fewer people are planning to give money. Despite the fact that money ranks behind only electronics and gift cards as the present they’d most like to receive, Americans won’t be opening their wallets as wide this season. Only 44 percent are considering giving a cash or check this year vs. 61 percent in 2008.

 • Women more likely to scale back on gifts to others. Here’s a statistic we didn’t see coming. When asked whose gifts do you plan cutting back on to save money, women were more likely than men to target family (including their children), friends, co-workers, and service providers (hair stylist, deliver person, etc) instead of themselves. Men, on the other hand, more willing than women to cross teachers and the family pet off their lists.

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