SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Up to 134 million U.S. consumers may shop for holiday gifts this Thanksgiving weekend, although most will check the bargains before venturing out, according to a survey released on Tuesday.
The poll by the National Retail Federation on shopping plans for the three days after the Thanksgiving Day holiday -- Black Friday, Saturday and Sunday -- found 57 million consumers definitely planning to hit the stores.
Another 77 million said that before heading out, they would make sure retailers were offering big enough discounts.
That is up from last year's survey in advance of Black Friday, when 49 million consumers said they planned to shop and an additional 79 million said they might if promotions were tempting. Holiday sales in 2008 turned out to be the worst in nearly four decades in the midst of a global financial markets crisis.
The long weekend after Thanksgiving, considered the kickoff to holiday shopping, is expected to draw bargain-hungry consumers who have cut back on their spending over the past year amid rising unemployment, curtailed credit and a weak economy.
Industry experts say the three-day weekend could draw a strong turnout, but many still expect tepid sales for the entire holiday season leading up to Christmas.
Shawn Kravetz, president of hedge fund operator Esplanade Capital LLC, said Wall Street could be disappointed this holiday, despite the sales improvements over last year.
"Less bad and even encouraging sales will lead to decent profits," Kravetz said. "However, expectations and stock prices have generally gone slightly further than 'decent' and therefore the holiday will be underwhelming."
The Standard & Poor's Retail Index is up 45 percent this year, compared with a 23 percent rise in the S&P 500 Index, on hopes consumer spending will rebound in the coming months and boost the U.S. economy. Both indexes were slightly lower on Tuesday afternoon.
Also on Tuesday, analytics firm comScore said it expects U.S. holiday e-commerce spending to rise 3 percent, citing "a positive start" to the season. Online spending fell 3 percent in the year-ago period.
ComScore attributed the projected gains not to a resurgence in consumer spending but rather to year-ago spending levels that were drastically low due to the global economic meltdown.
Many consumers choose to turn online instead of shopping in stores to compare prices, search out bargains and avoid time and gasoline-consuming trips to the mall.
Retail stalwarts Amazon.com Inc and Wal-Mart Stores Inc have already begun a price war online, heavily discounting new books in an effort to grab market share during the holidays.
In another report, SpendingPulse found that U.S. retail sales showed signs of stabilizing in the first half of November, in the run-up to the holiday season.
While sales at many retailers, such as those selling women's clothing, fell in the first half of November, most showed smaller year-to-year declines, suggesting there won't be the same retail blood-bath this year as last.
"The data is showing that we are in an environment of stable consumer spending but not one of growth," said Kamalesh Rao, director of economic research for SpendingPulse, an information service provided by MasterCard Advisors.
SpendingPulse estimates retail sales for all forms of payment, including cash, checks and credit cards.
DISCOUNTERS AND DEPARTMENT STORES A DRAW
The National Retail Federation survey found that discounters and department stores will see the most shoppers, with 66.3 percent of those polled planning to visit the former and 62.4 percent the latter.
More than 40 percent said they would head to electronics stores and 36 percent said they would seek out clothing or accessories. Some 27 percent said they would shop online.
Many retailers will open at midnight as Thanksgiving Day ends, and 10 percent of shoppers said they would be willing to shop between midnight and 3 a.m. -- mostly 18- to 34-year-olds, the report found.
More than a quarter of shoppers said they plan to shop in the early-morning hours for early-bird specials. The NRF survey, conducted by consumer market research firm BIGResearch, polled 8,692 consumers November 3-10. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 1 percent.