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Down to the Wire: Still Plenty of Holiday Shopping to Do

The elves better get busy, there's a lot of shopping left to do.

A woman makes a shopping list in front of a department store's Christmas window display.
Getty Images
A woman makes a shopping list in front of a department store's Christmas window display.

Despite the strong start to the holiday shopping season, the majority of Americans only completed about half of their holiday shopping in the final days leading up to Christmas, a new study has found.

This is not the first survey to show that shoppers still have plenty of gifts left to buy, but this one shows shoppers may be more prepared for the holiday at this point than they were a year ago at the same time.

In the latest poll—a survey conducted by BigResearch for industry trade group the National Retail Federation—the average person had completed 49.5 percent of their shopping by the second week of December, up from 46.7 percent at the same time last year.

On Tuesday, the latest American Express Spending & Saving Tracker survey found 84 percent of Americans still had shopping to do. That survey found that Americans were spending more on the holidays largely because they had expanded their holiday gift list, they were buying more expensive presents or they were treating themselves to items as they shopped.

Consumer Nation - Holiday Central Edition - See Complete Coverage
Consumer Nation - Holiday Central Edition - See Complete Coverage

With retail sales tracking ahead of last year, and more shopping left to do, these studies seem to support the growing optimism for this holiday shopping season.

The NRF took the rare step Tuesday of increasing their holiday sales forecast. The group now expects sales to rise 3.3 percent to $451.5 billion, up from its original forecast of a 2.3 percent increase.

The BigResearch survey, set to be released Wednesday, also found:

  • an estimated 37 million people, about 16.9% of consumers, had not even started their shopping as of late last week. This is lower than the 42 million at the same time last year.
  • About 22 million, or about 10.1 percent, have already finished. That's higher than last year's figure.

As Christmas falls on a Saturday, consumers only have one more weekend to shop for the holiday, and weather forecasts from Planalytics suggests that Mother Nature will cooperate and make it relatively easy for shoppers to hit the mall.

This Saturday is expected to be the busiest shopping day this month, with Christmas Eve expected to be the second busiest, the NRF said.

While most people will interpret the potential demand as a good sign for the rest of the season, there are sure to be some who will voice concern. For one, shoppers are farther along than they were last year.

Also, last year there were quite a large number of Americans who said they had not finished their holiday shopping even by Christmas Day.

That's because while it ishuman nature to procrastinate, delayed purchases also can be a sign of financial stress among consumers. This is especially true when you observe that a majority of consumers told BigResearch that they were using cash, checks or debit cards to do their purchasing. Less than one-third, some 31.1 percent, used credit cards to buy gifts.

But other signs are pointing to a merrier holiday for retailers. Consumers were saving and planning for the holidays and are using the season as a time to stock up on items they have wanted for a long while.

The American Express survey appears to back that assumption, considering the number of people who reporting they are spending more. About 26 percent of those who had started shopping said they were spending more than last year.

As the NRF predicted ahead of the season, shoppers are increasingly turning to their smartphone to help with their purchases. Among those in this group, about one quarter have used their phone to make an actual purchase, the BigResearch study found. However, most of these people are using their phones to locate stores or browse gifts. About one-third, are using their phones to receive text messages with offers, and slightly more than that are using smartphones to read reviews.

Clothing and accessories are the most popular gift being purchased, followed by books, CDs, DVDs, videos and video games.

Questions? Comments? Email us at consumernation@cnbc.com

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