American consumers plan to enter this year's holiday season more hopeful, resulting in consumer confidence to selectively open their wallets wider than the 2008 holiday season, according to new research fromInformation Resources, Inc .  However, consumers are taking a more strategic approach to shopping this year and are heading into stores with shopping lists in hand and a budget in mind. 

IRI, Chicago, said it surveyed approximately 1,000 households about their 2009 holiday shopping rituals and discovered other shifts in consumer behavior, such as the consumption of meals and beverages at home, purchasing private label, and bargain hunting, will also continue this holiday season.

"While consumers are beginning to awaken from the economic sea change just in time for the beginning of the holidays, they are taking very thoughtful and strategic approaches to their purchasing and are sifting hard through such questions as 'What do I really need?', 'What does my family need?', and 'What can we still live without?'" said IRI Consulting & Innovation President Thom Blischok. "Despite what appears to be a permanence of 'strategic selection,' last year's dismal holiday retail results are being left behind as consumers are slightly more optimistic about the economy and are much more savvy about how they attack their holiday gift and meal list."

More joy around the fireplace
Consumer attitudes and concerns surrounding gas prices, cost of utilities, job stability, the rise in food prices, and the recession are all seeing a decline in how these factors will affect this year's holiday shopping rituals.  Consumers' holiday shopping rituals will be less affected by economic factors than last year, especially regarding the price of food. Principal survey findings include:

...Consumers concern about the price of food has dropped more than 20 percent this year (98 percent in 2008 versus 77 percent in 2009).

...Expressed concern for the effect of gasoline prices on holiday shopping has dropped by 10 percent compared to 2008.

...Utilities saw a similar decline, down more than 9 percent from 2008.

...The overall effect of the recession on shopping decisions decreased nearly 5 percent.

However, consumer concern regarding job stability still remains top of mind and saw only a 1 percent decline, showing that while consumers may be more in the holiday spirit they still hold concerns about the downturn.  Consumers are not expected to give up their focus on conservative spending by creating tremendous credit card balances.  Instead, they have learned about how to more effectively spend their dollars.

Priorities: Faith, family, and friends
One consistency from last year's holiday season is the values American consumers continue to hold dear during the recession. Religion, spending time with family, and communal holiday meals remain important to the shopper, notably:

...More than 81 percent of consumers note religion as a major factor in their holiday celebrations.

...More than 98 percent of shoppers make spending time with family a priority in the holiday season.

...93 percent of consumers' holiday plans include getting together with family and friends over the dinner table and at parties.

...More than 90 percent of shoppers are making gift-giving a priority, up nearly 3 percentage points from last year

Table setting: Making a list, checking it twice
The dining room lights will shine bright this holiday season as American consumers, in keeping with their focus on spending time with friends and family, will consume most of their meals and beverage consumption at home or at a friend's house.  Nearly two-thirds of consumers plan to eat their holiday meals at home, half plan to dine at their friends' homes and holiday parties, and almost all plan to consume alcoholic beverages in their friends' homes or holiday parties.

While this holiday ritual of communal eating and drinking will continue to be a form of comfort and celebration this holiday season, it is also a cost-cutting strategy and a major contributing factor to why consumers note that they plan to spend the same or less this year than in 2008 on holiday meals. More than 94 percent plan on spending no more than $500 on food and 90 percent plan on spending no more than $200 on holiday beer, wine, and spirits purchases.

To help prepare for the holiday gatherings, dollar-stretching techniques, such as list-making and private label, continue to be top of mind for shoppers.  Only 11 percent of consumers mention they will shop without a grocery list.

Critical growing points resulting from the downturn, private label is expected to again take a seat at the head of the holiday table as 90 percent of consumers make private label food an important part of the holiday meal, up from 87 percent in 2008.

Grocery stores are expected to remain busy with shoppers piling in their private label selections in their grocery carts. Survey findings include:

...Budgeting (79 percent) and matched quality to name brands (60 percent) remain leading reasons for the switch to private label.

...92 percent of consumers will be doing their holiday food shopping at the grocery store based on sales and discounts, product selection, and variety of items in stock.

Smarter gift-giving
Shoppers are showing their gift-giving joy this year and are using the budgeting expertise they've learned in the past year. While consumers may be spending less, they are finding inexpensive splurges. Insights from the survey show that:

...77 percent of consumers will be treating themselves, and others, this holiday season even if times are tough.

...23 percent of shoppers have a gift-giving budget over $799, down 13 percent from 2008.

...11 percent more plan on budgeting up to $499 this year for gifts than in 2008.

...71 percent of consumers will not be giving food as gifts this year, removing fruitcakes from the gift list.

These consumers will be buying their gifts at mass merchandisers like Target (more than 77 percent) and department stores (65 percent), seeking the best deals on electronics, such as iPods, $100 Blu-ray disc players and other assorted electronic gadgets expected to be a "gift of choice" in many families this holiday season.  Notably, only 18 percent will be making their gift purchases without a shopping list.

A green, e-holiday shopping season
More Americans will be shopping online during this holiday season. Flexibility of time to shop, saving time, and avoiding crowds are all major draws that get consumers' dollars online, but only for gift-giving. Survey highlights show:

...18 percent increase in online shopping from 2008, when only 41 percent of consumers shopped online.

... 90 percent of shoppers will not be making their food purchases online, choosing to buy in-store.

"In addition to a renewed sense of consciousness about their budgets, we can expect shoppers to be eco-conscious this holiday season as they look to reduce waste in their households by using low-power lighting, recyclable packaging, smaller outdoor displays and pre-lit recyclable Christmas trees," added Blischock. 

Seasonal strategies
Retailers and CPG manufacturers can still position themselves to take advantage of this cheerier, savvier consumer during the holiday. Nearly half of consumers don't plan on starting their holiday shopping until after summer draws to a close, allowing CPG and retail to plan their holiday sales strategies that are in tune with consumers' desire to save money, spend time with friends and family, and treat the ones they love.

Important considerations include that consumers are making their purchase decisions in-home, requiring a savvy marketing and redesigned shopper value strategy. CPG and retail must act now in order to ensure that they win over the holiday and budget-minded shopper, avoiding delay in order to stay competitive and attuned to the shifting consumer market.

"The consumer has shifted dramatically in the past year with how they find and purchase their deals-CPG and retail need to take advantage of this newly savvy shopper by appealing to shopper values and budgets," said Blischok. "The holidays are a prime opportunity to draw the newly optimistic shopper into the store and to new products, but these actions and strategies must be swift and efficient, especially as shoppers continue making purchase decisions in their homes."