Survey: Americans had to cut back to pay for holiday shopping

NAPLES, FL - NOVEMBER 25: Shoppers move through a Best Buy store on November 25, 2011 in Naples, Florida in the United States. Although controversial, many big retail stores decided to get a head start this year for Black Friday and open on Thanksgiving Day or at midnight instead of the traditional dawn Friday opening time. Black Friday is the official start of the holiday shopping season and the busiest shopping day of the year form many retailers. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Spencer Platt

Americans' average daily spending ticked up in December but still remained weak compared with previous years, suggesting that consumers had to cut back on routine purchases to pay for holiday shopping, a new survey shows.

Self-reported daily spending averaged $76 last month, up from $71 in November, to notch its highest monthly average of 2011, according to the latest Gallup survey. However, the December figures represent little improvement over the previous two years, when self-reported spending came to $75 in 2010 and $72 in 2009.

"Gallup's tepid December spending figure -- little better than the December 2010 finding -- suggests that Americans may have offset some of their holiday shopping with cuts in that routine spending," writes Gallup's Lydia Saad.

Furthermore, self-reported daily spending is still stuck far below its pre-recession peak of $114 back in 2008. See the chart, courtesy of Gallup, below:

Gallup

On Thursday, the nation's retailers reported mixed results for December sales. Heavy discounts and promotional activity hurt many retailers profitability, and in more than a few cases, December sales came up short vs. Wall Street's expectations.

Target (TGT), the nation's second-biggest discount retailer after Wal-Mart Stores (WMT), cut its earnings outlook after reporting weaker-than-expected results. Mid-priced retailers J.C. Penny (JCP) and Kohl's (KSS) also offered disappointing forecasts, as did specialty chains Children's Place (PLCE) and American Eagle Outfitters (AEO).

Same-store sales, a key barometer of retailer health, grew 3.4 percent year-over-year in December, according to data from Thomson Reuters. That was essentially in line with Wall Street forecasts.

However, as Gallup's Saad notes, "there is more to total retail sales than holiday shopping -- including routine spending on groceries, gas, furniture, clothing, appliances, electronics and dining out."

After adjusting for inflation and population growth, the government's retail spending report for December, due out later this month, may show very little real improvement at all, Gallup says.

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    Dan Burrows, a veteran of Aol's DailyFinance, SmartMoney and MarketWatch from Dow Jones, covers the markets and economy with an eye toward investing for the long haul.