Families Will Gather Round the Holiday Table -- but Over Cheap Eats

IRI: Private Labels, Big-Box Retailers to Benefit as Consumers Say They're Belt-Tightening

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BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- It's going to be a private-label Christmas, or so data from an Information Resources Inc. survey of 1,000 consumers indicate. The firm projects consumer spending to hold up at around 2007 levels, though consumers will hunt hard for bargains and be reluctant to use credit cards.

In a survey completed within the past two weeks, respondents said they'll place more emphasis on holiday traditions, family get-togethers and religious observance as a counterweight to the so-called misery index of rising unemployment and prices, said Thom Blischok, president-innovation and consulting for IRI.

That includes 94% of consumers who said spending time with family and 80% who said holiday meals and entertaining would be more important this year than last.

No fancy brands on the table
But while 69% plan to spend about the same on holiday meals this year, nearly twice as many (20%) plan to spend less than more (11%). A whopping 91% said they would put private-label foods on the family table, and 51% said they would use private-label products whenever possible -- numbers well above the usual 30% to 35% preference for private label in such polls, Mr. Blischok said.

Other budget-control practices appear to be on an upswing, too, he said, with 69% of shoppers saying they're more likely to make lists of needed items and 58% saying they will use newspaper coupons and seek out more in-store deals compared to last year.

Rising prices of food, gasoline and utilities ranked well ahead of the recession, stability of financial institutions or even of jobs among influences on consumer-shopping decisions in the IRI study. But even the recent decline of gas prices doesn't appear yet to have buoyed consumer sentiment much, Mr. Blischok said.

Of consumers in the survey, 61% said they plan fewer holiday shopping trips this year than last, and 41% plan to shop online more, though Mr. Blischok believes lower gas prices may induce more trips.

The survey also found about 21% of shoppers plan to shop earlier this year -- mainly to find better deals -- compared to 10% who plan to shop later.

Wal-Mart, Costco could be big winners
Mr. Blischok predicted big-box stores such as Wal-Mart and Costco could be the big winners this year, possibly drawing shoppers from department and specialty stores by convincing consumers they can save enough on food to cross the aisle for gifts.

"The gift giving is going to change to more functional and affordable products," Mr. Blischok said. "Expect to see things like home beauty treatments, home facials, big-screen TVs, affordable, functional sweaters. Not a lot of fad stuff. ... People expect to get the same number of gifts, but to get them a little cheaper than last year."

More than 90% of consumers plan to use their credit cards the same or less, IRI said, extending the "deleveraging" in the rest of the economy.

Holiday travel is under particularly severe pressure, as 30% of respondents said they plan to spend less on it and another 12% who traveled last year don't plan to do so at all. Only 15% plan to spend more on travel this year.

If anything, the IRI survey paints a relatively rosy picture compared to the Consumer Confidence Index, which plunged to a record low of 38 in October from 61.4 in September as the global financial crisis drained what little buying spirit consumers had left, the Conference Board said today. The 38% drop off already-depressed levels takes the index to its lowest point since it was instituted in 1967.

"This news does not bode well for retailers," Lynn Franco, the Conference Board's chief economist, said in a statement.
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