THE HOLIDAY TUG-OF-WAR

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Tradition holds that the annual warfare between retailers and holiday shoppers starts this Friday. But researchers have already scoped out the combatants and this is how the sides line up:

Retailers: Eight of 10 expect consumers to spend more than last year or about the same. They see sales running 4% to 5% higher.

Consumers: Over half (57%) are planning to keep spending levels the same as last year, with another 24% planning to spend less. They also expect to spend between $16 and $20 per gift, down from last year when the average was $21 to $25. The average consumer expects to spend $685 this holiday season, compared with $714 last year.

Retailers: Only one-third say they expect to do major price-cutting before Christmas.

Consumers: 72.9% believe retailers will slash prices close to Christmas Day.

Retailers: Department stores say they're more inclined to promote heavily before Thanksgiving, while the majority of discounters and certain specialty stores prefer to wait until after Christmas.

Consumers: Between 40% and 60% (depending on the survey) said they would shop discount stores while between 14% and 39% said they will shop more at major department stores.

Retailers: Rank customer service as the No. 1 consumer lure, followed by better quality merchandise and price promotions/markdowns.

Customers: Better quality merchandise and everyday low prices, respectively, are the leading reasons they shop a particular outlet. Customer service is tied at third place together with larger selection. This is a change from last year when everyday low prices, convenient locations and larger selection ranked in the top three.

This apparent cognitive dissidence that afflicts retailers may explain why some 20% of consumers say they'll do their shopping by catalog this year.

Meanwhile, online service is taking over as the most promising new vehicle for retailers, with 38% expecting to expand into online services over the next three years, compared with only 19% planning to get into TV home shopping. Today, only 1% of retailers currently use TV home shopping to sell merchandise, compared with 7% currently using online.

Could it be some future Friday after Thanksgiving will find empty malls and overloaded phone lines?

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