A full 35 percent of consumers surveyed by the Consumer Federation of America and Credit Union National Association said they plan to spend less than they did last year. That is up from 32 percent last year and the highest figure ever recorded in the eight years the survey has been conducted.
The release of the survey could cause further concerns for already jittery retailers wary of the effect the ongoing housing and credit crisis will have on consumers' spending.
"The bottom will not fall out of retail but it will be softer," said Bill Hampel, chief economist at the credit union association.
Some retailers have anticipated a down year. Industry bellwether Wal-Mart Stores Inc. began offering steep discounts on a variety of products three weeks before the traditional "Black Friday" start to the holiday shopping season.
Rival Target Corp. had to cut its monthly sales outlook for both September and October, and has already lowered its expectations for full-year earnings.
Hampel said the cost of gasoline and home heating would have the biggest effect on holiday spending. Of the 1,000 consumers surveyed, 38 percent said fuel costs would result in less money for presents. Hampel noted that gasoline costs about $1 more per gallon compared with this time last year, and said any further increases could have an "outsized effect" on consumer spending.
"You're going to take fewer trips to the mall if you're paying $3 or more a gallon," said Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America.
In addition to rising fuel costs, those surveyed pointed to the overall price of gifts and general household expenses as lowering their holiday shopping expectations.
The survey results suggest retailers catering to lower- to middle-income households could be in for a particularly rough holiday season. Households with incomes between $25,000 and $50,000 were the most likely, at 42 percent, to plan on spending less for gifts this year.
"While it's true that consumers actually end up spending more than they think they will, consumers are feeling the bite of rising energy costs, and other factors, with the likely result that spending growth will be weak this year," Hampel said.