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Holiday Spending Outlook Gets Merrier...Even With Sandy

Joe Raedle | Getty Images

Although the headlines are still dominated by the U.S. presidential election and the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, analysts are looking ahead to the busy holiday shopping season — there are only 48 days until Christmas — and some of the latest reports are more optimistic than earlier projections.

Consulting firm BDO's annual survey of 100 chief merchandising officers at the nation's leading retailers suggests an expectation among retailers for a 3.7 percent gain in holiday same-store sales. That's the rosiest estimate from CMOs since 2007. As for total sales, the group on average is projecting a 4.7 percent gain in total holiday sales.

Meanwhile, Brand Keys, a New York-based research consulting firm that specializes in customer loyalty, estimates that shoppers will spend 6 percent more on holiday gifts than they did last year, or about $870 each — that's double the Brand Keys' estimate in 2011.

These estimates are much more optimistic than earlier forecasts issued in late September and early October, which pegged holiday sales gains at somewhere between 3.5 percent and 4 percent. (Read More: Retail Trade Group Sees Holiday Sales Up 4.1%)

Of course there are outliers on the other end as well. Customer Growth Partners, which issued its forecast in late October, expects a mediocre gain of 2.8 percent in retail sales. If that estimate proves true, it would be less than half of 2011's 5.8 percent growth rate, and it would represent a further deceleration from this year's already tepid 3.7 percent growth during the back-to-school shopping season, which is retail's second busiest time of the year.

"We've had two years of five-percent plus holiday growth coming out of the recession, both before and after Sandy, consumers aren't panicked about the economy, but they are worried, so they're 'smart-shopping,' and they're shifting spending from discretionary goods to needs," said Craig Johnson, the retail consulting firm's president.

Customer Growth Partners issued their holiday spending forecast before the superstorm, which flooded homes along the Northeastern coastline and ripped down countless trees leaving millions without power. However, Johnson's research of consumer behavior during other similar disasters shows that these events tend to accelerate the shift from spending on discretionary items to spending on things that people need.

"Unlike most holiday shopping that tends to focus more on the 'desires' end of the needs/wants/desires spectrum, hurricanes and snowstorms shift buying to 'needs' end of the spectrum — if not 'emergency needs.'"

As most people have seen, shoppers stocked up on milk and water, batteries and flashlights, and even big-ticket items like generators. But as the holidays approach, Johnson expects to see a "snap-back" in buying to holiday items. (Read More: Damage From Sandy? What About Potential Economic Boost?)

"Major disasters don't destroy demand, they displace, either forward or backward in time — or online," he said. In fact, if there is any impact from Sandy on the holiday season, Johnson expects it will be a positive one. "When all is said and done, Sandy won't be able to save an otherwise so-so holiday season, but she can at least add a present or two under the tree."

Johnson is expecting to see lots of clothing and accessories wrapped up under the tree this year, especially in categories such as performance clothing and footwear. But he expects sales of electronics items to be weak with one exception, Apple products.

That's in contrast to the BDO and Brand Keys surveys. The survey of retail CMOs draws the conclusion that there is a strong expectation that electronics will be a strong seller this holiday season. This demand will be driven by new tablets from Apple, Microsoft, and Google, BDO said. The CMOs said they expect there to be a lot of discounting in the consumer electronics category and competition among the products will be intense.

There already is evidence that this will be the case, as retailers such as Target and Best Buy offer price-matching programs.

"While we haven't returned to pre-recession levels of optimism, retailers are gearing up for what looks to be a promising holiday season," said Doug Hart, partner in the retail and consumer product practice at BDO USA.

Brand Keys survey, which polled 16,200 consumers in the last two weeks of October, also saw a lot of interest in electronics items.

"Shopper responses were similar to last years' intended purchases," said Robert Passikoff, Brand Keys president. "There are always gift cards. Virtually everyone gets one. But personal care products and services…returned to the list last year in a meaningful way and are up again this year, along with an increase in electronics, both good indications that the desire for discretionary spending, is there."

Despite the differences in the surveys, one thing keeps popping up consistently. Consumers are still focused on making sure they get a good deal and they remain in a conservative mood.

Seventy percent said the economy impacts their holiday spending plans, the same as in Brand Keys' survey last year. Sixty percent said they would rely on price comparison apps and on shopping both online and in the store in order to find the best deals. More than half said they would rely on traditional and electronic coupons and promotions.

And despite all the coaxing that retailers have made to get consumers to commit to their holiday purchases early, only 24 percent started their shopping in October.

"The majority of shoppers are still waiting for what they see as the 'traditional' holiday shopping period," said Passikoff. "Just because retailers began advertising and decorating stores for the holidays well before Halloween doesn't mean consumers are shopping earlier." (Read More: Despite the Scorn, Consumers Embrace 'Christmas Creep')

"In fact, more shoppers — some 36 percent — will wait until December to begin their shopping," he said. Passikoff attributes this to a combination of consumers looking for the very best of deals and shoppers who are perennially late.

"The feeling is by December the best deals will have risen to the top," he said.

-By Christina Cheddar Berk, CNBC.com News Editor; Follow her @ccheddarberk.

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

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