More U.S. consumers are planning to spend less this holiday season than a year ago, according to a survey released Tuesday that adds a fresh note of caution to what is shaping up to be a ho-hum holiday shopping season.
The National Retail Federation survey also showed consumers continue to procrastinate, meaning the final days of the shopping season will be crucial for retailers.
"The last-minute rush will be busier than ever this year," said NRF President and CEO Tracy Mullin in a statement.
The survey, conducted between Dec. 4 and Dec. 11, found that 33.4 percent of shoppers said they intend to spend less this year, compared with 29 percent who said the same thing a year ago.
Meanwhile, 16.4 percent of survey respondents said they plan to spend more this holiday, down from the 20.4 percent who indicated last year that they would spend more.
Ellen Davis, a spokeswoman for the trade group, said the rise in the number of consumers indicating they will pull back on spending does not necessarily raise a "red flag." She said consumers say one thing but do another, and often wind up spending the same amount of money when all is said and done.
But she said the figure can give a glimpse into the state of consumer sentiment. The jump could show consumers are more on edge this year as they face a deteriorating housing, a credit market crunch, and higher costs for food and fuel.
The holiday season is a crucial one for retailers because it can account for 25 to 40 percent of their annual revenue.
Amid the uncertain economic environment, the NRF has forecast that holiday sales will rise at their slowest pace in five years, and so far the strength of the holiday shopping season has been difficult to gauge.
The season got off to a strong start during the Thanksgiving weekend, as shoppers took advantage of limited-time deals. But then they retreated, saying they wanted retailers to offer deeper discounts before they would finish their gift buying.
Data released on Sunday by SpendingPulse, the retail data service of MasterCard Advisors, showed sales have slowed steadily since the Thanksgiving weekend. Meanwhile, ComScore said the same day that growth in online sales was much lower than a year ago.
Retailers are in their final holiday push, trying to convince shoppers that the time has arrived to spend.
The NRF survey, conducted by BIGresearch, found that 11.7 percent of consumers said they have completely finished their holiday shopping, while 16.5 percent said they have not even started. Nearly one in five men said they had yet to begin their holiday shopping.
So far, the average person had completed about 52.6 percent of his or her shopping, the NRF said, compared to 53.1 percent at this time last year.
To get their holiday shopping completed, 42.4 percent of shoppers, who were given multiple choices, said they would head to department stores, while almost 39 percent said they would go to discount stores.
Almost 35 percent said they would shop online and 30 percent said they would go to a specialty store, like a toy store, an electronics store or a clothing store.
The NRF said it still expects holiday sales, which includes November and December, to rise 4 percent compared with a year ago.