Holiday shopping may not be all ho ho ho

As they head into the holiday season, many consumers are maintaining a tight grip on their wallets even as the stock market keeps registering record highs and unemployment hits multiyear lows.

A survey of 1,009 people released Monday by the Consumer Federation of America and the Credit Union National Association found 33 percent of respondents said they plan to spend less during the holidays, while 10 percent said they would spend more. Last year, 13 percent said they would increase their purchases, and 32 percent said they would cut back. These figures are marked improvement from 2008, during the height of the financial crisis, when 58 percent said they would spend less.

"The rising economic tide has not raised all boats equally," noted Stephen Brobeck, CFA's executive director, in a press release. "Far fewer households with incomes above $100,000, than those with incomes below $25,000, have fared worse over the past year."

Spending will rise modestly, though the survey found that many people have "significant concerns about their personal finances," according to Mike Schenk, CUNA senior economist.

Another report released yesterday, by Consumer Reports, came up with a slightly different view on the holidays. It showed that about 56 percent of respondents expect to spend about the same amount on gifts as they did last year. More than half of those surveyed planned to budget their purchases, a sign that memories of the financial crisis remain fresh for some people. Indeed, three-quarters of respondents told the publication that they paid off last year's holiday purchases by February.

The results of these surveys echo comments that retail executives have made for months.

Walmart (WMT), the world's largest retailer, recently reported its first increase in two years for same-store sales, a key retail metric measuring the performance of locations opened at least a year. However, the Bentonville, Ark.-based company continues to struggle and slashed its earnings forecast last week for the year, warning that the holidays would be tough.

Kohl's (KSS) another chain that targets less affluent shoppers, recently reported disappointing earnings, as did rival TJX (TJX), the parent company of TJ Maxx and Homegoods. Other retailers that target more affluent customers such as Macy's (M) have also posted lackluster sales, while chains such as Nordstrom's (JWN) and L. Brands (LB) have bucked the trend and beat Wall Street expectations.

The National Retail Federation is forecasting that holiday spending will rise 4.1 percent to $661.9 million in 2014. That's an increase from the 3.1 percent gain seen last year, and some economists have said the closely watched estimate may prove to be conservative. Chris Christopher of IHS Global Insight, for one, expects a 4.2 percent rise given the decline in gasoline prices, which are closely correlated with consumer confidence. Any growth in wages, which have long been stagnant, also will help.

Plus, as Christopher pointed out in a recent note to clients: "Last year's holiday shopping season was tarnished by the federal government shutdown and an unseasonably colder December."

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    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.