September 14, 2010 / 6:57 PM / 9 years ago

U.S. consumers cautious as holidays near: survey

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Consumers are nearing the holiday shopping season with unusually cautious expectations for what they plan to spend, a survey showed on Tuesday in an early sign the season could be tough for retailers.

More than 42 percent said they plan to spend less this year, compared with 11.7 percent who said they planned to spend more money, according to a survey by consumer research firm America’s Research Group.

That ratio of nearly 4-to-1 saying they planned to spend less is above the 2-to-1 seen in 2009, and even higher than the 3-to-1 seen as financial markets collapsed and credit markets froze in 2008, according to Britt Beemer, president of America’s Research Group.

Beemer said he was “shocked” by the response in the survey of 1,000 people conducted September 7-10, adding he expected the number of those planning to spend less to be only 2.0 to 2.5 times as high as those planning to spend more.

“I’ve never seen 4-to-1 in my lifetime,” Beemer said, though he added it was too early to make a call on holiday spending. “What it does do is it sets the mood of the consumer where this Christmas season starts.”

If that mood does not change, retailers will need to again resort to big discounts to attract shoppers, he said.

The question about holiday spending plans was one of several asked exclusively for Reuters during the survey.

Among other results — more than 55 percent said they were in a better debt position this year than last year. But that may not necessarily translate into more ability to spend, since credit-card companies have also tightened credit limits, Beemer said.

In a sign that could bode poorly for sellers of larger televisions and computers, only 26.7 percent of those surveyed said they planned to buy one or more items that cost more than

$300.

“Usually by now, that number is 50 percent, not 27 percent,” Beemer said. “Usually families are thinking of one item of at least $300 or more that they want for Christmas.”

The survey results had a margin of error factor of plus or minus 3.8 percent.

Reporting by Brad Dorfman, editing by Maureen Bavdek

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