- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Mary Welch will arise Christmas morning, serve a nice brunch, replete with mimosas and sweetbreads, and settle in with family for a viewing of the holiday comedy film “Elf.”

But there will be no presents. At her order.

Welcome to the ho-ho-ho season where frugality and practicality remain the new norm. The recession that crippled the past two years of holiday shopping has abated, and consumers are shopping a bit more, researchers say, while looking for the best deals amid worries that a full-scale economic recovery is not here.

“How many times do you stand in a store and overhear people complaining about how hard it is to buy a gift for a person? Theyre so grumpy about giving,” said Ms. Welch, a Lansing, Mich., assets manager.

“I just want people to be happy and not put themselves in debt, so I stopped the gifts,” added Ms. Welch, 38 and a mother of three. “When people are insistent on getting me something, I tell them about a charity I support.”

The National Retail Federation in Washington predicts shoppers plan to spend, on average, $688 this year, up only $7 from the $681 they spent in 2009.

“Consumers will still shop with the economy in the back of their minds, but we’re starting to see shoppers take baby steps toward a new normal,” NRF President Matthew Shay said in a statement. “As Americans open up their wallets for more discretionary gifts like jewelry or take advantage of sales to buy for themselves, retailers will begin to truly believe that the worst may be behind them.”

Some are using the tighter economic climate to be more inventive this year.

Andy Grieser, a writer and editor based in Denton, Texas, calls his family’s holiday plan “more personalized and low-key.”

With a son born prematurely weeks ago, a sister in the Air Force who just moved to Alaska, Mr. Grieser said his mother came up with the idea that “we’re going to do stuff this year instead of giving stuff.” That may mean future baby-sitting offers and a date night out for him and fiancee Laura Knowles, he said.

“Instead of the usual family gathering, where we exchange electronics and stacks of books, this year we’re going inexpensive and creative,” drawing on each other’s talents, Mr. Grieser added, noting that his brother is a chef and his brother-in-law a painter and sculptor. Their new gifting plan, he said, just “seemed fitting.”

Still, retailers are as reliant as ever on Black Friday — the day after Thanksgiving that traditionally marks the start of the Christmas season — and so they have to pack them in. Indeed, Black Friday and the associated first-thing-in-the-morning frenzy has been increasingly been pushed back in the calendar, and not just by retailers opening at hours like 3 a.m. and 4 a.m.

Most Best Buy, Macy’s, Wal-Mart, Kmart and Sears stores nationwide will be open on Thanksgiving Day. On Black Friday itself, Wal-Mart has promised to match its rivals’ advertised prices.

One major chain not open on Thursday, Toys ‘R’ Us, will counter with late-night deals Thursday and stay open all the way through closing on Friday. Target got a jump on Black Friday with a four-day sale that began Sunday, and Kmart and Sears have been running, respectively, “Better Than Black Friday” and “Black Friday Now” deals on select days since the start of November.

Ann Mack, the director of trend-spotting at advertising agency JWT in New York City, reports signs of life in consumer purchasing, according to research conducted by her firm.

“What we found is anxiety levels had returned to prerecession levels,” Ms. Mack said of the JWT study. “Consumer anxiety, while still high, is dropping, which I think is a good sign for the season ahead. Hopefully for retailers, that will translate over the holidays.”

Another emerging consumer trend is “the urgency economy,” she said. Online sites such as Groupon.com and Livingsocial.com, which offer time-sensitive deals, have become increasingly popular ways to drive consumers to do business.

Soon, she said, that online strategy will be headed offline and to the mall.

“We are predicting that this sense of urgency will move to the brick-and-mortar world,” said Ms. Mack, noting that many stores are already announcing specials ahead of the Black Friday shopping kickoff. “I think you will see more this holiday season where there will be limited time deals to entice shoppers to shop now, generating excitement for some product.

“Ironically, this ‘act now’ approach is going to help nudge people back to prerecessionary spend-now, think-later ways,” she said. “They won’t be as mindful as they have been over the last couple of years because they will be enticed to act on deals.”

Tom Aiello, division vice president of media relations for Sears and Kmart, said his stores have mobile-phone applications that, among other things, let people order goods online but pick them up in person, as part of their shopping trips.

“You can have it shipped to you or have it ready for an in-store pickup or a curbside pickup,” he said. “That convenience factor is going to be a big trend for retailers.”

Online retail giant Amazon.com began offering Monday an iPhone application that lets shoppers compare Amazon merchandise’s price with the cost of the same item at a brick-and-mortar store. Customers will then have the option to order the item instantly via Amazon.

In a process that Mr. Aiello jokingly dubbed “e-haggle,” customers at Kmart and Sears websites also can follow the price of merchandise and place an order that takes effect only when the item reaches that price.

“As opposed to customers going out and finding a deal, now the deals are finding the customer,” he said.

Other signs of renewed consumer spending come from eMarketer, a newsletter that tracks online business. According to a report published in Brandweek magazine, holiday e-commerce is expected to rise by 14.3 percent this year, “marking the second straight year of double-digit e-commerce growth.”

The newsletter noted the convenience of shopping online and deal-finding capabilities that the Web provides for those hoping to be frugal as the economy improves. Online sales, it added, should make up to nearly a fourth of all retail sales in 2010.

MasterCard Advisors’ SpendingPulse, which also tracks spending in brick-and-mortar stores, reported increases in spending on jewelry (8.1 percent), other luxury goods (6.7 percent) and clothing (9.7 percent) from Nov. 1 to Nov. 13 this year versus the same period in 2009.

As these economic surveys and anecdotal signs show easing for retailers, some Americans say they will remain cautious. Kelly McLaughlin Sofaly, a mother of three from Irwin, Pa., said she will make no credit card purchases for the holiday — only cash — and limit her gift-giving as a commitment to her ongoing thrift.

“My siblings and I no longer exchange gifts, but we do buy gifts for each other’s children,” said Ms. Sofaly, 50, a construction inspector. She will buy her two sons a large gift to share and a few presents for her daughter. “I’m fortunate that my kids are satisfied with a few gifts.”

In Charleston, W.Va., Debbie Winfree Cooley , 49, said adults in her family are drawing names to limit spending and will focus on presents for the children young enough to expect a visit from Santa.

“We all like to keep the spirit of Christmas by keeping Santa real. When [children] get bigger, the quantity of toys gets smaller until they reach 18 and are considered adults and put into our pool,” she said of the family gift-giving strategy.

As for the adults: “We all enjoy our time together, especially since we are all spread out among the states. Food, music and spirits become our Christmas with the little kids still having that magical feeling.”

With the famed Black Friday shopping marathon looming, Accuweather.com forecasters offer less-than-hopeful news. Rain and possibly snow are forecast for the East, with meteorologists warning of a “miserable night” for Black Friday campers getting in place for the best early a.m. deals. Not that they will be deterred.

LaToya Drake, AOL’s consumer adviser, said the deals are so good this year that many won’t mind rising at 4 a.m. and stepping out in the bitter cold and possible precipitation.

“I think you will see a lot of foot traffic and also a lot of people going online,” she said of the outlook.

On the local front, more people will be supporting small businesses, which typically aren’t top of mind on Black Friday. American Express, she added, is hoping to spur business by offering its customers $25 if they frequent a local business next Saturday.

“Small businesses, they don’t have the money to give you those big deals,” Ms. Drake said. “But American Express will put a little money in your pocket if you do.”

Of the biggest deals, Ms. Drake said Wal-Mart will offer a $99 e-reader on Black Friday and many retailers will offer huge discounts on outerwear. After one of the warmest Octobers in history, their inventories are huge and they need to move coats to make way for spring merchandise.

The most coveted adult electronic gift is Apple’s iPad, but no one toy has emerged for 2010 as the must-have for children, she said.

Among the top toys are a singing Justin Bieber doll, Squinkies ($10 collectibles) Paper Jamz (cardboard guitars), and video Barbie, a doll with an actual video camera inside.

While Ms. Drake said she can’t predict consumer behavior across America, she thinks many people are tired of hearing bad stories about the economy and ready for better days.

“Deals have never gone out of style,” she said of holiday purchases. “I think people are tired of not treating themselves to a little something special. They may have said ‘I can’t get that Kindle last year, but I’m going to take a chance and get it this year.’”

Victor Morton contributed to this report.