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Small businesses, local shops are gaining on traditional retailers

Shoppers walk through the Garment Center Holiday Market in New York.
Richard Levine | Corbis | Getty Images
Shoppers walk through the Garment Center Holiday Market in New York.

Wal-Mart isn't just fighting against Target and Amazon this holiday.

Instead, as consumers crave distinctive merchandise and unique shopping experiences, traditional retailers are also battling local businesses, seasonal pop-up shops and niche online players for a share of shoppers' wallets.

Among the 73 percent of consumers who told Deloitte that they will shop at new or different stores this season, two-thirds plan to do so at a local store or business. Roughly half said they'll shop on websites they haven't visited before, and nearly a quarter will visit temporary pop-up shops.

The findings come as traditional retailers are losing $200 billion in annual sales to small and midsize retailers, according to Deloitte. And with competition coming at them from every angle, larger retailers are scrambling to find ways to effectively compete.

"It's very easy for Target to fight Wal-Mart and Lowe's to fight Home Depot. You know who your adversary is," Rod Sides, who heads up Deloitte's retail and distribution practice, told CNBC. "Now you're experiencing guerrilla warfare. You're being shot at from multiple locations and you're not sure where the fire's coming from."

This shift helps explain the discrepancy between a slew of bullish holiday sales forecasts, and major retailers' recent financial results, Sides said. Whereas Deloitte and the National Retail Federation are calling for revenue growth of roughly 4 percent across the industry, companies from Macy's to Gap are entering the season off another quarter of top-line contraction.

The change in spending patterns has been spurred by consumers — particularly millennials — who are on the hunt for more unique merchandise. According to a recent report by Google, mobile searches for distinctive gifts increased 65 percent last holiday, whereas searches for cheap or inexpensive gifts grew just 35 percent.

"There's really an opportunity here for the small retailers and the retailers that are focused on personalization and local and handmade," Steve Barr, PricewaterhouseCoopers' U.S. retail and consumer leader, told CNBC when discussing the findings of his firm's holiday spending survey. "Consumers are clearly telling us they're going to spend more and they're telling us they have a preference for those things."

But Americans aren't just shopping smaller to find one-of-a-kind merchandise. As the web grabs a larger chunk of their spending, their standards are rising for what makes a trip to the store compelling.

Larger players are trying to tap into that excitement, with companies like Wal-Mart and Toys R Us leaning more heavily into product demonstrations. They're also trying to shift more of their workforce onto the sales floor, to provide better and more personal customer service. Where small businesses have a definitive edge, however, is among people who want to shop local to support their town's economy.

Yet while smaller stores tend to grab shoppers' interest during the holidays, they also face challenges. According to Adobe Digital Insights' holiday forecast, the largest 100 retailers are seen grabbing the bulk of online sales growth this season, at 16.6 percent to 7 percent for smaller players. Shoppers are even willing to pay a premium to shop with larger companies that they trust, the firm found.

Smaller retailers' digital shortfall will become even more pronounced as the web grabs a larger chunk of holiday sales. Already, Deloitte's survey found that fewer shoppers this year plan to visit stand-alone stores, traditional malls and local independent shops, as they do more shopping online.

"Every retail location, every physical address, was down," Sides said. "The consumer seems to have turned a corner and is as happy shopping online as they are in a store."