Amy Martinez/Seattle Times—Faced with economic uncertainty, Des Moines parents Audrey and Ishmael Scarborough are sticking closely to a budget this holiday season despite an uptick in their personal finances.
She’ll head out early Friday morning to join the post-Thanksgiving shopping frenzy, while her husband, a paralegal, browses the Internet for deals at home.
“Things are not as tight for us this year,” said Audrey Scarborough, 29, who works as a librarian. “But we are still money-conscious.”
Their strategy for not getting carried away in the free-for-all? “We keep a list of things we want and need,” she said.
Even amid signs that the economy is improving, words such as “cautious” and “uncertain” describe many holiday shoppers as the season kicks into high gear Friday.
Locally, the unemployment rate is a full percentage point lower than it was a year ago. Rising stock prices and rebounding home values helped boost household wealth almost to pre-recession highs over the past year.
Lower gasoline prices also mean shoppers could have more money to spend on the holidays. The average price for gas locally is $3.34, down 18 cents from a month ago, the AAA auto club reported Monday.
But doubts about the strength of the economic rebound persist. Seattle-area job growth has slowed since August, pushing up local unemployment for four straight months to 5.7 percent as of October.
Income gains are concentrated among the wealthiest households. Wages for many workers at the bottom and middle rungs of the career ladder have not kept up with inflation.
And there’s some concern that President Obama’s health-care overhaul could lead to higher premiums and deductibles next year, said Jeff Green, a retail consultant in Phoenix.
What’s more, the federal government faces another partial shutdown if Congress doesn’t raise the debt ceiling by early February.
“If people are really in tune, they’re thinking, ‘Are my health-care costs going to go up? And what’s going to happen with the economy when we now have to renegotiate the budget?’ ” Green said.
“But one thing Americans are good at is compartmentalizing,” he added. “They can take Christmas out of those other worries.”
Indeed, the National Retail Federation predicts a 3.9 percent increase in holiday sales this year. That’s higher than last year’s 3.5 percent growth and the 10-year average gain of 3.3 percent.
Also, U.S. retail sales rose a better-than-expected 0.4 percent in October, driven by big-ticket items such as cars and furniture, according to the Commerce Department.
“Consumers have proven resilient for quite some time. And we’re not dealing with an economy that’s teetering on the brink of falling again,” said retail federation spokeswoman Kathy Grannis. “There’s definitely room to be optimistic.”
Even so, retailers will rely on deep discounts and other promotions to drive sales this holiday season, Grannis said.
Some signs of aggressive discounting already have emerged. Wal-Mart last week started matching or beating the advertised Black Friday prices of rivals such as Best Buy for some toys and electronics. Best Buy also plans to match rivals’ prices, even after customers make their purchases.
And Target, better known for the whimsical tone of its ads, is touting its prices in holiday TV ads for the first time in at least a decade.
Economic jitters, coupled with a holiday season shortened by the late arrival of Thanksgiving, mean stores are scrambling to capture shoppers’ money early before competitors snatch it.
Wal-Mart and Best Buy are starting deals at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving, followed by Macy’s, Target, J.C. Penney and Kohl’s at 8 p.m. Toys R Us is opening at 5 p.m. Thursday.
Beating them all is Kmart, with a 6 a.m. opening on Thanksgiving.
Experts say that with Thanksgiving falling unusually late this year, shoppers probably will lean on e-commerce to save time and money. While holiday sales overall are projected to rise 3.9 percent, sales growth online is pegged to rise between 14 and 17 percent. E-commerce sales on Cyber Monday alone are predicted to jump 20 percent.
Seattle-based Amazon.com started its Black Friday deals Sunday, a day earlier than last year, promising new deals every 10 minutes through the weekend.
Walmart.com will begin a Cyber Week of online promotions Saturday, two days early, with 200 daily deals through Dec. 6. (Wal-Mart also lowered its minimum purchase requirement for free shipping from $50 to $35, the same as Amazon’s.)
Sammamish mom Josee Clermont took advantage of a “pre-Black Friday” sale last Friday at Toys R Us in Bellevue. She said she also had been snagging deals online and was almost done with her holiday shopping.
“I feel that with all the deals, I can get more for what I’ve spent in the past,” said Clermont, who has two children, ages 8 and 7. “I’m not cutting back, but I’m also not thinking everything is back to normal.”
The Conference Board reported Tuesday that U.S. consumer confidence fell in November for the third straight month and is at its lowest level since April.
A recent survey by the Deloitte consulting firm suggests Seattle shoppers are a bit more optimistic than their counterparts nationwide.
Shoppers here plan to spend an average $460 on gifts this holiday season, compared with the U.S. average of $421, according to Deloitte.
Last year, Seattle respondents told Deloitte they expected to spend $447, while the national pool planned spending of $386.
As many as 61 percent of the survey’s local participants said they believe the economy is slowly recovering from the recession, up from 57 percent last year. Also, 28 percent said their financial situation is a lot or somewhat better than a year ago, up from 27 percent in 2012.
But only 49 percent said they feel extremely or very secure in their jobs over the next year, down from 50 percent last year.
A shaky job market weighs on local shoppers such as Ruth Garrels, 63, a temporary human-resources employee at Macy’s. She said her husband is a contractor at Boeing, and he may be laid off in December.
Among their usual gift recipients are four grandkids and three grown children, plus their spouses.
“When we are both working and have a salary, we can buy higher-price gifts and maybe more of them,” Garrels said. “But this year we are just focusing on our four grandchildren.”
Many retailers get up to 40 percent of their annual sales in November and December, so the holiday season can make or break their entire year.
Holiday spending also supports nearly 10,000 seasonal jobs in the Seattle area, according to state government estimates.
Amanda Owens, 28, a pharmacy technician at Wal-Mart, and her husband, Chris Vrbas, a human-resources employee at Wal-Mart, take both a worker’s and a parent’s perspective.
Financially, she said, they don’t have to worry too much about sticking to a tight budget, and they probably will splurge on their daughter, Aurora.
“You always see something you think someone will love, and it is hard not to get it for them,” Owens said.
They also have a strategy for limiting the financial hit from holiday gift giving.
“We started shopping a little earlier this year, so that it is broken up a little more and not all at one time,” she said.