Consumers Know of 'Fiscal Cliff,' but Do They Care?
It's beginning to look a lot like a decent Christmas at the shopping mall. Government figures show that retail spending grew last month, and Piper Jaffray expects holiday spending will accelerate over the next two weeks.
The Consumer Federation said more consumers are planning to spend more this year, a sentiment borne out at the Westfield Topanga Shopping Center in Los Angeles.
"I think things have gotten just a little bit better," says shopper Jack To, holding a shopping bag carrying a Coach purse for his girlfriend.
Is he concerned about the "fiscal cliff?"
"Absolutely...I still have people, friends, very close friends, out of work or underemployed," he said. However, he plans to spend more this Christmas.
Wal-Mart Stores CEO Mike Duke says awareness of the fiscal cliff has skyrocketed among his core consumers.
"The week before the election, only one fourth, 25 percent, of our core customers even knew what 'fiscal cliff' meant," he told the Council on Foreign Relations earlier this week. "One week after the election, it was up to 75 percent."
Still, he says of that group, only 15 percent are saying the debate over the deficit and economy "will affect their Christmas spending this year."
"I think they will fix the fiscal cliff," shopper Ann Zarifian said, while taking a break in the mall food court. "I'm a positive person."
Jason Pine has bigger worries on his mind. Shopping with his wife Aneta and 14-month-old daughter Julia, he said 2012 has been a year of stress over starting a new business and dealing with health issues.
"I don't know how much (the fiscal cliff) impacts us," he said. "We haven't put that much thought into it."
Ashley Lewin, a 20-something recent college grad confessed she didn't know enough about the fiscal cliff to have an opinion. "I'm more concerned with getting my mom the right gift."
"People with stocks in investments say it matter, but others it doesn't seem to be affecting," said Britt Beemer, founder and CEO of America's Research Group. "Consumers with investments of $40,000 to $45,000 are concerned...for the lower-income and middle-income groups, they're more concerned with getting bills paid each month."
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Beemer reported some differences in spending this holiday. His research suggests fewer people are buying gifts for themselves this year, 33 percent, compared to 42 percent last year.
More people are using cash and debit cards — and when they don't use credit, they're spending as much as 40 percent less on each purchase.
"This year it's all cash," said Too.
Jason Pine agreed, "We've learned the hard way with credit so we're trying to avoid that as much as we can."
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—By CNBC's Jane Wells; Follow her on Twitter: @janewells