As others skimp, rich splurge on holiday gifts: study

NEW YORK Thu Oct 18, 2012 2:56pm EDT

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Scrooge-like spending patterns for the holidays appear to be a thing of the past for wealthy Americans, who are preparing to open their wallets this year after sitting on piles of cash.

The richest Americans, those in the top 10 percent, or with more than $100,000 in discretionary income, are predicted to spend more this holiday season than the remaining 90 percent of the country's population, according to a quarterly survey by American Express released on Thursday.

While most Americans will spend less on gifts this year, the top 10 percent raise their gift spending by 21.9 percent, to $19.2 billion, up from $15.7 billion in 2011. That compares with a projected drop in overall gift spending of 3.4 percent, to $66.3 billion, from $66.6 billion last year, according to the American Express 2012 Survey of Affluence and Wealth in America.

The spending by the wealthiest 10 percent will account for 29 percent of total spending on gifts.

The rise is explained by the fact that wealthy Americans are sitting on huge piles of savings, said Jim Taylor, vice chairman of the Harrison Group, which conducted the study. Top earners are saving at a high rate - 61 percent of those in the top 1 percent are saving at least 25 percent of their income yearly. But for Americans outside the top 10 percent, only 14 percent are able to save at such an aggressive rate.

"If the floodgates open, it will lead to a capital boom," Taylor said.

The moneyed will also spend differently - shelling out for high-end luxury items, shunning gift cards and spending quite a bit on themselves, American Express said.

The study, conducted in September, surveyed 832 people with household incomes of more than $138,000 and discretionary income over $100,000.

There are other signs, however, that Americans overall are starting to spend more. While the American Express study only surveyed gift spending, an annual forecast by the National Retail Federation's forecast that looked more broadly at holiday spending - including decorations, greeting cards, holiday foods, flowers and other items, as well as gifts - saw a rise of 1.2 percent, to $749.51 per consumer, up from $740.57 last year.

YOU CAN'T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT

The richest 10 percent may have more money, but in at least one way they are just like other Americans: they want gift cards. Some 60 percent of Americans desire gift cards, according to the NRF. However, the spouses or partners of the wealthy are not planning on getting them what they want, according to American Express.

Of the 34 percent of women who want a gift card to a specific retailer, only 11 percent of their spouses or partners plan on giving that as a gift. For the 18 percent of men who want a gift certificate to a restaurant, only 5 percent of their partners are likely to be wrapping that up.

"Nobody is going to give somebody a gift card for $5,000 rather than getting them that new bracelet. It's not quite the same emotional impact," said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, a New Canaan, Connecticut-based company that analyzes retail trends.

Because of the disparity between what respondents want and what they're likely to get, the richest Americans plan to do a lot of shopping for themselves for the holidays - 46 percent of women in the wealthiest 10 percent say they will buy for themselves, and 27 percent of men, said the Harrison Group's Taylor.

Clothing, accessories and jewelry are among the top items women will be buying for themselves. Men will snap up clothing, fine liquor and gourmet foods.

(Reporting by Beth Pinsker Gladstone; Editing by Chelsea Emery and Leslie Adler)

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