Biggest Threat to Holiday Spending: A Consumer Love of Saving?

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So far, the list of reasons shoppers may let down the retail industry this year includes unemployment that is still at high levels, weak store sales over the Thanksgiving weekend and a consumer spending trend that has been lackluster over the past several months. Not on the radar of concerns is the preference of Americans to save rather than spend. The problem, at least as far as consumer-based companies goes, probably will extend into next year.

According to a new Gallup poll on saving money:

Americans are sometimes faulted for their lack of savings and conspicuous consumption, but Americans themselves say they prefer saving money over spending it, by 62% to 33%. However, this has not always been the case. Prior to the 2008 financial crisis, Americans were more evenly divided.

In other words, for retailers, the problem has gotten worse.

As one of the headlines in its analysis, Gallup reports that:

Spending Less, Rather Than Spending More, Is Likely to Be New Normal

What the research does not tell is how the modest amount of money spent will be spent. If thrift follows caution, the trend might be that Americans will look for value and discounts this year, because splurging has gone out of fashion.

Discounts offered by major retailers have not ended with Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday. J.C. Penney Co. Inc. (NYSE: JCP) continues to offer a 20% discount for people who use the J.C. Penney credit card. In many cases, this is in addition to discounts already set on certain items. Investors in J.C. Penney and retail experts have worried that the retailer cannot afford to offer these sorts of sale prices because, low on cash, its needs to make money this year. By the same token, it has to bring in as many customers as possible or face the sort of dive in sales that was the trend over the past two years.

Retailers with strong balance sheets can better handle the need to discount to gain shoppers. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE: WMT) can afford to lose money on some items, as it hopes to expand its huge share of the American shopping population. Walmart’s method has been, according to many experts, to lure consumers with low prices on some items in the hopes that they will buy other items with better margins before they leave the stores. The plan has plenty of risks, but Walmart can afford to take them.

Retailers who have earnings problems this year can hope that 2014 will be better. That may not be true if the trend to save that Gallup has identified stays in place.