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For Shoppers, It's Christmas in October

Maybe there's a reason stores put their holiday decorations up so early.

The National Retail Federation says its survey has found that 40 percent of shoppers will begin their holiday shopping before Halloween. That's despite the fact that the day after Thanksgiving is typically seen as the official beginning of the holiday shopping season.

The trade group says consumers plan to spend an average of nearly $817 on holiday-related shopping, with another $107 spent on themselves. The total is up 3.7 percent from 2006.

Among sought-after gift items, gift cards are at the top of the group's list. They are followed by clothing and accessories, and books, DVDs, videos and video games.

The early start to the holiday shopping may speak to more cautious spending this season, according to the trade group.

"Shoppers will be a little more conservative with their spending as they become more aware of the softness in the economy,'' said NRF President and CEO Tracy Mullin in a statement.

"It is safe to say that many retailers will be competing on price, causing this holiday season to be very promotional.''

The NRF consumer survey found that 38.2 percent of respondents said that sales or price discounts would be the most important factor to them when deciding where to shop -- up from 36.5 percent a year.

Last month, the NRF estimated total U.S. holiday retail sales would rise 4% to $474.5 billion this year, marking the slowest gain in five years as the weak housing market and a credit crunch tempered consumer spending.

Last week, many retailers reported weak sales in September, and some even lowered their earnings forecasts below Wall Street's expectations.

Many of those who were surveyed said they planned to shop at discount stores.

More than 68 percent of consumers said they plan to shop at discount stores, compared with 70.3 percent in 2006. Meanwhile, 58.2 percent of shoppers said they will go to department stores, down from 61.6 percent last year.

But this year consumers expect to do 30.2 percent of their shopping online, up from 28.9 percent a year ago.