Beginning to look a lot like Christmas

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I saw my first in-store Christmas tree ornament display in August. August! I had just gotten accustomed to seeing holiday displays right after Halloween when the poor little ghost and goblin displays were squeezed out by glittering artificial trees and ornament spreads. But Christmas trees before ghouls? What’s going on?

CherylPearsonMcNeilbox

I think I can tell you because my employer, the Nielsen Company, is the largest marketing research company in the world. We measure consumer behavior trends—what you buy and what you watch, including mobile and online services. We also provide annual holiday spending predictions (which are pretty accurate, having fallen within 1.5 percent of actual results on unit and dollar sales the two previous seasons) through the combination of a survey of nearly 25,000 demographically representative U.S. households (which includes people who look like us) and more than 500 category-level forecasts of core items sold across food, drug and mass merchandiser stores (including Walmart).

And even though there are always exceptions to every rule, you may be surprised to learn about some of the upcoming holiday buying trends culled from our global insights team:

The good news for retailers is that more consumers—that would be you and me—plan to do holiday shopping this year. On the flip side, because people remain concerned about the jobless recovery, we are still apparently keeping a close and careful eye on our personal finances; and according to the survey, 36 percent of consumers say they will spend less on those gifts. If you’re like me, I don’t think my son will find presents stacked a mile high under the tree for the first time in his short, 14-year life. Not so much because of the recession (which, reportedly, is officially over), but because the child has everything. (Fellow moms and dads out there, you know what I’m talking about.)

So, what’s left to give? Gift cards. Nielsen research predicts a strong season for gift cards and technology products. (Those iPad ads have visions of Apple dancing in my head, in case you’re reading this, Santa!) Retailers may also experience positive surprises in discretionary items like clothing, jewelry, toys, DVDs, video games and books. Even big-ticket items like vacations may be on the up rise among upper income households ($100K+). The surveys show that we are not planning to spend holiday money on sporting goods, CDs, cookware, and bed and bath items. Those sales will be flat. It is predicted that those upper income household consumers ($70K-$100K+) will drive online store purchases. Dollar store visits are expected to increase, and will be driven by consumers with incomes $50K and less. Perhaps not surprisingly in this economic climate, dollar stores have seen an increasingly higher income shopper than in previous years.

What is a bit surprising is that the projected increase in holiday spending is being driven by lower-income consumers. Six percent of those households earning less than $20K reportedly plan to spend more, compared to 4 percent of higher income households. All income consumer groups, however, will spend holiday dollars at mass merchandisers (e.g. Walmart, Target, Kmart) supercenters and club stores. As consumers, we have redefined value. These days, value is not just about price; it is about the balance between price and benefits. Makes sense to me, as we all want more bang for our buck; as that buck is so much harder to come by these days.

Nielsen research also shows that we spend a considerable amount of time in front of the TV during the holidays. (I can vouch for that. Give me a showing of “It’s A Wonderful Life” or the original “Miracle on 34th Street” and I’m there!) The week between Christmas and New Year’s is ranked as the top week for overall live television viewing, watching DVDs and playing video games. The week of and the two weeks following Thanksgiving rank among the top 10 weeks for men’s TV viewing. (Girls, say it with me—duh, football, hello.)

So, even though it’s not even Halloween you’re now fully prepped for the season! Shop thoughtfully and use your consumer power for good.

(Cheryl Pearson-McNeil is senior vice president of Public Affairs and Government Relations for the Nielsen Company. For more trends and insights go to http://www.nielsenwire.com.)

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