Are Americans confident enough about the recovering national economy to loosen their purse strings this holiday season?
End-of-year sales have grown significantly over the past decade, boosted in part by a boom in online shopping. And the National Retail Federation (NRF) projects this year's holiday shopping season will bring in around one-fifth of the retail industry's overall annual sales of $3.2 trillion.
Earlier this week, the NRF announced it expects sales for November and December, excluding auto, gas and restaurants, to rise 4.1 percent to $616.9 billion, beating out the 3.1 percent increase seen during that period in 2013.
"Retailers could see a welcome boost in holiday shopping, giving some companies the shot in the arm they need after a volatile first half of the year and an uneventful summer," NRF president and CEO Matthew Shay said in a statement.
But Shay also acknowledged some "uneasiness and anxiety among consumers when it comes to their purchase decisions." Holiday shoppers, he added, are likely to be very particular and price-sensitive when they head to the stores, or go online, to make their purchases.
Indeed, another report, from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and the Strategy& group, warns that this year's holiday shopping season could end up looking a lot like last year's.
"Shoppers remain cautious on the economy and are concerned about disposable income, the rising cost of living and insufficient salary, leading surveyed participants to project an average household spend of $684, down from $735 in 2013," Steven Barr, PwC's U.S. retail & consumer practice leader, said in a statement.
The PwC report also described a widening spending divide, which has created two groups of shoppers.
One group are so-called Survivalists, consumers making less than $50,000 a year, who represent about two-thirds of American shoppers and consider all their holiday purchases through the lens of affordability and cost-of-living expenses.
The other group, which the consulting firm dubs "Selectionists," make more than $50,000 annually. And while they may spend more per household during holiday shopping (a projected average of $978 for this year), the report said Selectionists are very careful when it comes to how they use their disposable income.
Nevertheless, retailers appear to be gearing up for a profitable holiday season.
The monthly Global Port Tracker report, released on Friday by the NRF and Hackett Associates, a maritime industry research and advisory group, said import cargo volume at U.S. retail container ports is expected to set a new monthly record in October.
Part of that increase, however, is to ensure the retailers are stocked up ahead of the holidays, in case an ongoing labor dispute involving West Coast dockworkers leads to possible shipping slowdowns or disruptions.
With all the economic and geopolitical uncertainties of this year, consumer confidence and spending has been erratic -- down in the springtime, then creeping back up in recent months. But NRF officials point to the reasons for optimism.
"In the grand scheme of things, consumers are in a much better place than they were this time last year," NRF chief economist Jack Kleinhenz said, "and the extra spending power could very well translate into solid holiday sales growth for retailers."
But Kleinhenz also expects holiday shoppers this year "will still be deliberate with their purchases, while hunting for hard-to-pass-up bargains."