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The Holiday ’12 State of the Consumer

October 11, 2012 Leave a comment

This week, the National Retail Federation announced their 2012 holiday forecast, predicting that sales will rise 4.1% over 2011 to $586.1 billion. The sales growth is expected to be slightly higher than the 10-year average holiday sales increase (3.5%), though pacing below last year’s growth (5.6%). With holiday shoppers gearing up for spending, let’s take a look at the “state of the consumer” as we head into this all-important selling season for retailers:

Confidence is UP, but Feelings are Volatile. In the BIGinsight September monthly survey of more than 9,000 consumers, 38% indicated that they were very confident or confident in chances for a strong economy. This was a high reading for 2012 and a vast improvement over the September 2011’s 23%, when consumers were still reeling from the debt crisis. Confidence is riding a four-point upswing from August to September, but don’t look for this indicator to continue to improve at this pace – 2012 has been a rollercoaster ride for sentiment and continued fluctuation is expected headed into Q4.

Consumer Confidence

The outcome of the “fiscal cliff” drama on Capitol Hill remains big question mark for the sustainability of confidence – as well as holiday sales. Should we fall off that precipice – and realize an average 2013 tax bill increase of $3500 – holiday budgets are bound to shrink. Adding to the precarious position of the economy? Our continuously weak job market. And the upcoming Presidential election also adds to the uncertainty.

Frugality is a Fixture in Consumer Finances. Along with the relatively robust increase in consumer confidence in September, we also witnessed similar increases in those focused on practical purchasing and buying just the necessities. In fact, both indicators are in line with what we saw a year ago, when confidence was just 23%. So yes, Virginia, despite the more positive outlook for the economy, consumers are still being very cautious with what they spend – even as we look forward to the holiday shopping season.

Expect holiday shoppers to stick to budgets, avoid impulse buys, continue smart shopping strategies, such as couponing, sales/promotions, and comparison shopping, as gift-buying commences. Frugality continues to be the name of the game with consumers because they know the economy isn’t “fixed.” Paying down debt and reducing spending remain fiscal priorities headed into the final three months of 2012, while plans to increase savings reached a six-year September high last month, so it appears that consumers may be preparing for holiday shopping as well as those everyday unknowns.

Pricing uncertainty in key areas, like grocery, gas, and apparel, continues to be of concern with consumers. An increasing number of shoppers are relying on their credit cards more compared to September 2011 when purchasing such staples – so we are still seeing signs of struggling consumers. (i.e. Holiday ’12 won’t herald a season of “recovery.”)

However, if it can be avoided, shoppers won’t make this Christmas on credit. Year over year, fewer are paying off just the minimum monthly balance on their cards, while we’ve seen a slight rise in those carrying $0 average monthly balances. The past four years have been a tough road for consumers, but they do appear to be focusing on not falling back into the lax spending/savings patterns that got them into a mess back in 2008.

Consumers Know They Have the Upper Hand with Retailers. Can we call this retail transparency? The rising popularity of mobile devices has taken much of the mystery out of shopping for customers holding a smartphone or tablet. They can compare prices, check availability, and even click “buy” from virtually wherever they are located, and shoppers will work all angles – online, instore, mobile, social media, coupon sites, direct mail, email, and ad circulars – to make sure that their holiday spending remains on budget. It’ll be a spending game that consumers want to win.

However, we know that all retailers can’t compete on low price alone [I’m looking at you, Best Buy.] Great customer service and personal rapport with shoppers will be key in driving traffic to retailers who aren’t low-price providers. Product selection, availability, and brand assortment – something department stores having really honed in on in the past few years – will also serve to turn shoppers’ heads this season. “Cheap is chic” is SO 2008; today’s shoppers want value and are willing to pay a little more for quality – as long as they can use a coupon.

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com as a contribution to the Prosper Now blog.

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A Fashion Fixation

I would be lying if I told you that I didn’t have a massive, industrial grade shoe rack filled with footwear [à la the clearance racks you see at Macy’s]. I would also be fibbing if I told you that each spare closet in my house doesn’t store my off-season wardrobes. And, would you believe that I have a pretty sweet store of handbags as well?

While I don’t believe that I belong on an episode of A&E’s Hoarders [my husband might tell you otherwise], I do admit to a fixation with fashion – fashion on a budget, that is. I don’t pay retail prices for a darn thing.

Shopping for clothing is like a sport for me. I’m regularly equipped coupons, special sales, rebates, ad circulars, Googled promo codes, and even credit card perks. And my goal is to score high quality [sometimes even designer tier] apparel, shoes, and/or accessories at rock-bottom pricing. I even bought my wedding dress on sale…and used a coupon on top of that.

As it turns out, I’m not alone. According to the latest BIGinsight™ Monthly Consumer survey*, the majority of consumers agrees that “getting a great deal on apparel is like a ‘sport’ for me” [56.1% say this is somewhat/very true]. This number rises among both females 18-34 and 35+ and is a near-majority for men as well.

Getting a Great Deal on Apparel is Like a "Sport" for Me [Somewhat or Very True]

But that’s not to say that all consumers enjoy the thrill of the hunt. While nearly a third say that “shopping for apparel is one of my favorite pastimes” is somewhat/very true for them, a larger proportion (43.8%) indicated that this was not very/not at all true. In fact, among men over 35, nearly half (44.5%) would go as far as to say that “shopping for apparel is a necessary evil”!

In this age of smartphones, tablets, and other technological advancements, one might think that catalogs and other print media are a bit passé, but those hunting for fashion ideas might disagree. Nearly half (48.1%) of shoppers responded that they “enjoy looking through catalogs, direct mail advertisements, and circulars for apparel.” This number rises substantially among women 18-34 (61.9%) as well as their 35+ counterparts (57.2%).

But when it does come to new technology, it’s the younger shoppers (18-34) who are surfing sites for fashion trends and tips [some of my personal faves are here, here, and here]. In this age group, two in five women (40.0%) and – surprise! – nearly a third (32.3%) of young men say they “browse social media sites and/or blogs for outfit ideas.” Among those over 35, this figure drops significantly.

I browse social media sites and/or blogs for outfit ideas. [Somewhat or Very True]

Other fun findings:

– Nearly four out of five women 18-34 (78.5%) “enjoy shopping for apparel sales and discounts,” while the majority of young men (55.2%) feel the same.

– While women 18-34 (56.9%) and 35+ (47.8%) are the most likely to “try to re-create high-dollar looks on a low-dollar budget,” a large proportion of young men (46.1%) are inclined to attempt this as well. Men over 35? Not so much (29.2%).

UPDATE: For more on this topic, click over to our press release: Special BIGinsight™ Analysis Identifies Behaviors and Shopping Strategies of Apparel Shoppers. Includes analysis of Kohl’s, JC Penney, Macy’s, Target, and Walmart Women’s Clothing Shoppers.

For more information on this data, please contact BIGinsight™.

* Respondents were posed the following question: On a scale of 1 (“Not at All True”) to 5 (“Very True”), please tell us how true the following statements are when it comes to shopping for apparel for yourself and were presented with a variety of fashion and apparel oriented statements. A sampling of these statements appears within this report.

Source: BIGinsight™ Monthly Consumer Survey – APR-12 (N = 8724, 4/3 – 4/10/12)

© 2012, Prosper®

BIGinsight™ is a trademark of Prosper Business Development Corp.

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