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Retailers Anxious Over Consumer Sentiment During the Holidays

Christina Beck is approaching this holiday season cautiously.

Ms. Beck, a 58-year-old administrative director at a school, makes lists of gifts she plans to buy for her family and friends and sticks with it. But her spending this year will be kept in check by the high cost of food in grocery stores and restaurants, and the mortgage for a home in Minneapolis she bought last year with her best friend.

That best friend, Kristin Aitchison, cannot wait for the holidays. Ms. Aitchison, 55, who works for a senior living home, advises her family each year that she plans to make the holidays smaller, spending less. And every year, she spends more than she did the year before.

“I’m a huge gift giver,” Ms. Aitchison, who started her shopping in early November. “I have so much joy in giving gifts. I’m always running around the last week before Christmas because I have to find just a few more gifts.”

There are many reasons for people to be more prudent in their holiday spending this year. While inflation is less rapid than it was a year ago, millions of shoppers still feel sticker shock when buying groceries. Payments on federal student loans, which were on pause during the pandemic, have resumed. And higher interest rates have meant larger credit card bills and, for home buyers, mortgage payments.

Yet consumer spending has been surprisingly strong throughout 2023. For retailers, the question is whether people will continue to spend their way through the holiday season or decide this is the time to pull back.

Predictions are murky. The National Retail Federation said it expected holiday sales to increase 3 to 4 percent from last year, without adjusting for inflation, on a par with the prepandemic 2019 season. But in a survey by the Conference Board, a nonprofit research group, consumers said they planned to spend an average of $985 on holiday-related items this year, down slightly from the $1,006 they anticipated spending last year.

One closely watched early indicator, Amazon’s Prime Day in October, showed consumers were spending more, but only slightly. They spent an average of $144.53 on Prime Day, a 2 percent increase from the average the year before, according to Facteus, which analyzed credit and debit card transaction data.

Last week, the Commerce Department reported that retail sales nationwide fell 0.1 percent in October from September, the first drop since March. Executives at Walmart also warned that consumer spending had weakened in the last two weeks in October, noting that people seemed to be waiting for sales.

“It makes us more cautious on the consumer as we look into the fourth quarter,” John David Rainey, the chief financial officer of Walmart, said in an interview. “I think there’s likely more variability in the numbers.”

Still, the retail sales pullback was smaller than the decline that many economists had expected after a very strong summer of spending, and some analysts saw it as a sign of continued consumer resilience.

Holiday sales are likely to be decent by prepandemic standards, though not as strong as the gangbuster seasons in 2020 and 2021, said Tim Quinlan, a senior economist at Wells Fargo.

Higher-income shoppers still have plenty of extra savings built up during and after the pandemic, but those with lower incomes have more fully used up their resources, Mr. Quinlan said. Higher interest rates may also deter shoppers from putting holiday shopping on credit cards. The combination of reduced savings and higher rates “makes it tougher to have a big pile of presents under the tree this year,” he said.

For much of the year, consumer spending has been underpinned by continued strength in the job market and wage gains. Average hourly earnings in October were up 4.1 percent from a year earlier. That was faster than inflation. As measured by the Consumer Price Index, prices were up 3.2 percent.

Still, signs of slowing are beginning to show up. Wage growth is slowing, and the unemployment rate has risen over recent months. Like Mr. Quinlan, many economists think that consumers are getting closer to exhausting their savings, though some studies suggest that many have been drawing down their financial cushions only slowly.

For many, the resumption of student-loan payments is putting a crimp in holiday spending plans. In a holiday survey by the consulting firm Deloitte, 17 percent of respondents said they had to resume student loan payments, and almost half of them said they planned to reduce their holiday spending as a result.

In past years, Tara Cavanaugh, a 37-year-old marketing manager, spent as much as $1,500 on gifts for her family, friends and various office parties, she said. This year, after a move with her partner to Boulder, Colo., and the resumption of her $400-a-month student-loan payments — her partner also has student-loan debt — she said she was paring down her gift list and expected to spend closer to $200.

“We both make decent incomes and live simply, sharing an old car and our furniture is still from Ikea, but it still feels like we’re struggling,” Ms. Cavanaugh said of her and her partner. “I know a lot of us are feeling the pinch, so I’m not going to freak out about giving gifts to people who are older than me, are doing fine and don’t need anything.”

As always, many people are looking for deals, whether on Black Friday or through other pre-Christmas sales. About 52 percent of consumers plan to watch for deals and special offers online and 39 percent plan to hunt for sales in stores this year, according to a survey by the research firm Forrester.

When the Amazon toy catalog landed in Claire Kielich’s mailbox in Austin, Texas, her two daughters, ages 5 and 10, who also have birthdays in December, began circling what they wanted.

“I’ll be watching to see if any of those things go on sale for Black Friday,” said Ms. Kielich, 40, who does product development and sourcing in the furniture industry. She said she expected to spend around $1,000 this holiday season and already had a stash of stocking stuffers hidden in one of her closets.

Ms. Beck in Minneapolis started buying holiday gifts in July, making lists of what friends and family needed or liked, picking up unique items at local craft stores or from small local businesses and storing them in what she calls her “present drawer.” This approach, she said, helps her put more thought into her gifts and keeps her from spending beyond her budget.

Her best friend, Ms. Aitchison, takes the opposite approach. While careful with her finances during the year, come the holidays she has no plan and, basically, no budget. Her oldest child has barred her from ever buying him another pair of corduroy pants. Last year, she bought four nine-foot-tall blow-up dinosaur costumes for her adult children.

“Of course, nobody needs a blow-up dinosaur costume,” Ms. Aitchison conceded.

This holiday season, she plans to shop until she drops.

“I don’t think about what I’m going to spend,” she said. “In January and February, because I spent all my money, I’ll eat beans and rice while I pay the bills off.”

Despite their different holiday shopping styles, Ms. Aitchison said she and Ms. Beck always had fun shopping together.

“She doesn’t get nearly the amount of things that I do,” Ms. Aitchison said. “She’s always like: ‘Kristin stop. Put that down. You don’t need it.’”

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