Holiday Shopping Season Gets Early Start

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BOSTON (TheStreet) The end-of-year holiday trilogy Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas could make or break retailers this year. Stores will be working harder to attract consumers who curtailed spending last year.

October's retail sales might serve as a bellwether for the rest of the holiday shopping season. More consumers are planning to start their holiday shopping this month, well ahead of November's traditional "Black Friday," several surveys show.

American Express recently looked at consumer attitudes on seasonal gift giving and travel. Its Spending & Saving Tracker surveyed 2,009 adults and focuses on two sub-groups, the "affluent" and "young professionals."

The survey found that 80% of consumers still intend to buy gifts for the holidays this year. In what American Express calls "an encouraging sign," one in five consumers intends to do so in October, with women outnumbering men by 28% versus 16%.

A similar survey by PriceGrabber.com, Experian's comparison shopping Web site, reports that 22% of consumers will start their holiday shopping in October. If shoppers start buying earlier this year, big box retailers like Wal-Mart (Stock Quote: WMT), Target (Stock Quote: TGT) and Macy's (Stock Quote: M) may get an early read on whether sales will rebound from last season's recession-inspired frugality.

"The study confirms that consumers are definitely planning to open up their wallets for the holiday season," says Pamela Codispoti, American Express' general manager for cardmember services. "Despite the economic environment, consumers are not going to miss out on the enjoyment of the holiday season. Shopping is starting early, which I think bodes very well for the retail industry."

When it comes to holiday spending this year, 36% of the American Express survey participants expect to spend between $100 and $499, 28% plan to spend $500 to $999, and 30% anticipate spending $1,000 or more.

The PriceGrabber survey strikes a less optimistic tone. It found that 53% of respondents are planning to spend less than last year, with 38% saying they will spend less because they're earning less.

A driving force for getting people into stores may be how early, and to what degree, retailers discount goods. In a twist on conventional wisdom, American Express found that deep discounts are more important to affluent shoppers than lower income shoppers.

Eighty-two percent of respondents said they could be enticed by discounts. Young professionals seemed easier to motivate, saying they would be willing to begin spending with discounts as low as 10%. By contrast, the affluent said it would take a discount of 30%, on average, to open their wallets.

"People are looking for a reason for the season to get excited to shop," Codispoti says. "What we are finding this year is that even more modest discounts are luring consumers into stores."

The American Express survey found that many are cutting the number of people they will buy gifts for. When consumers were asked to compare this year's gift list to last year's, more than half said they're not purchasing presents for acquaintances and co-workers they gifted last year.

As for travel spending, the American Express survey provides a mixed bag for airlines looking to cash in on the Thanksgiving week crush. Although 30% of U.S. consumers say they will make changes when it comes to this year's travel plans, only 21% expect those expenses to decrease from last year.

Those who plant to modify travel plans say they intend to travel by car, stay for a shorter time and use incentives like frequent-flier miles to help pay for holiday trips.

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