But there's one thing no one is debating: how much consumers spend will be driven by promotions this holiday season.
The latest evidence comes from Accenture , which released its holiday spending surveyTuesday. The consulting firm said 83 percent of Americans expect to spend the same or less on holiday gifts compared with 2009.
"The 2010 holiday shopping season will be spectacularly unspectacular for many consumers," said Janet Hoffman, managing director of Accenture's retail practice.
"Our data suggests consumer spending will be flat compared to last year, aided by a continuation of conservative discounting by stores and the limited discretionary income of many shoppers," she said.
This is only the latest in a series of forecasts that are not likely to inspire feelings of comfort and joy at the nation's malls. For example, Nielsen also predicted flat holiday spending, with flat to declining unit sales, down 0.15 percent.
The Accenture survey also revealed that discounts will be the key motivator for many consumers, more than three quarters—some 87 percent—saying they won't buy without a discount of at least 20 percent, and one quarter saying they will be expecting an aggressive discount of 50 percent or more in order to make a purchase.
But consumers may be disappointed.
Kevin Strawbridge, president of online coupon Web site Dealtaker.com, said he isn't expecting to see many deep, deep discounts this holiday season.
"The advertised percentage off's aren't going to be as strong," Strawbridge said. He expects to see discounts ranging from 15 to 20 percent off, instead of the 25 to 30 percent off deals that characterized last holiday season.
According to Strawbridge, retailers are keeping their plans for Black Friday close to their vest at the moment. But he still expects that the date is significant for a core group of consumers, who see the day as part of their holiday tradition.
Still, in the Accenture survey, more than half of consumers, or about 53 percent, said they were unlikely to shop on Black Friday, or they have not yet decided decided. Compare that number to last year, when 48 percent of those surveyed told Accenture that they were unlikely to shop that day.
The reason may be that consumers have come to expect retailers to maintain some of their discounts throughout the season, or to plan periodic events throughout the time period.
Strawbridge said consumers sometimes can snag the best prices on some items two weeks before Black Friday.
This points to the need for shoppers to do their homework if they want to save money—something that's easier to do online.
Shoppers have been turning to retail Websites in increasing numbers so far this year, and that trend appears unlikely to change for the holidays, several suveys have found.
For these shoppers, free shipping is the biggest motivator, Accenture said. About 43 percent said they look for that offer, compared with 35 percent of shoppers last year.
About one quarter of those surveyed said they shop online to find better discounts than in-store.
These observations harken back to comments from Kantar Retail, which said retailers will need their "promo mojo" to survive the holiday season. They do expect retailers to become increasingly promotional as the holiday season progresses. That may be good news to last-minute shoppers everywhere.
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