Why holiday spending forecasts may not matter

For those of you keeping score, a quick tally of forecasts from ShopperTrak, Deloitte and AlixPartners indicates that retailers should brace themselves for another year of tepid growth, with all three firms predicting slower sales growth than in 2014.

But what if that doesn't tell the entire story?

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As the divide between high- and low-income shoppers widens, a new report from PricewaterhouseCoopers contends that retailers are no longer concerned with overall consumer spending during the year's largest selling season.

Instead, as 67 percent of shoppers with an annual income of less than $50,000 indicated that they plan to spend the same or less than they did in 2014 — compared to 64 percent of those making $50,000 or more — 2015 is shaping up to be a year of distinct winners and losers.

In such an environment, the consulting firm said those retailers that cater to low-income "survivalists," and likewise, those that differentiate their brands and store experience for the more financially secure "selectionists," will win.

By contrast, those in the middle will continue to lose.

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"To call a single number has lost its relevancy because there are clear winners and losers," said Steve Barr, PwC's U.S. retail and consumer leader.

"The value channel is doing very well and the premium channel is doing very well. Those retailers that are stuck in the middle — especially those retailers that aren't brand-centric and aren't experience-centric — they're struggling."

According to PwC's survey, which polled more than 2,000 consumers and 230 retailers and manufacturers between July and August, shoppers plan to spend on average $1,018 during the holidays.

But there is a huge split between shoppers based on income. Consumers who earn at least $50,000 will spend on average $1,331, nearly double that of the $681 shoppers who earn less than $50,000 plan to spend.

Aside from this income bifurcation, there are also distinct spending patterns that vary by a shopper's age. PwC argues that millennials are the "retail prize" this holiday season, with 47 percent of consumers between 18 and 34 planning to spend more. That compares to 25 percent of older shoppers.

But much of the $63 billion that PwC estimates millennials will spend this year won't go toward traditional holiday categories like apparel or consumer electronics. Instead, the group plans to spend 52 percent of its holiday dollars on experience-related purchases including travel and entertainment, compared to 39 percent of older shoppers.

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They also plan to spend more on themselves. Whereas shoppers 35 and older plan to spend $72 on gifts for themselves and $648 on others, millennials plan to spend $106 on themselves and $368 on others.

Though overall spending is expected to improve slightly this holiday, 90 percent of retailers indicated they are concerned about the economy. The economic environment has only become more uncertain since the survey was issued, as U.S. stock markets continue to gyrate, and following Friday's disappointing jobs report.

If these events and other geopolitical tensions continue to make headlines, Barr said they could weigh further on consumer spending.

"The reality is, none of us know," he said. "But what we do know is we're in some really uncertain times."

Another thing that is for certain, Barr said, is that consumers will continue to expect promotions and deals. He predicts 2015 will be another promotional holiday — a forecast that's already coming to fruition.

Just as the calendar turned to October, Target expanded its price-match guarantee, whereas Wal-Mart in August kicked off its layaway program two weeks early.

"The leading retailers are employing aggressive strategies in both the physical and digital channels," Barr said.

"We believe the biggest winners of all this holiday season will likely be the consumer."