ARE SHOPPERS JOLLY, WARY? CONFIDENCE STUDIES DIFFER

NEW YORK -- Two recent surveys portray oddly different views of consumer attitudes on the eve of the holiday season.ny time in the past year, as many expressed doubts about present and future business conditions and their ability to find new jobs.In contrast, another study found consumers saying their holiday season won't be spoiled by the decrease in the price of technology stocks or the increase

NEW YORK -- Two recent surveys portray oddly different views of consumer attitudes on the eve of the holiday season.

ny time in the past year, as many expressed doubts about present and future business conditions and their ability to find new jobs.

In contrast, another study found consumers saying their holiday season won't be spoiled by the decrease in the price of technology stocks or the increase in the price of gas.

According to the 15th annual Consumer and Retailer Mood Survey: Retail Holiday Outlook conducted by Deloitte & Touche in affiliation with the National Retail Federation, 82% of consumers said they expect to spend more or the same as last year. This is the highest percentage since the survey began asking consumers this question in 1993. As a result, retailers can expect to record their 10th consecutive holiday sales increase of this current economic expansion.

To some extent, the opposing viewpoints come from economists looking at similar data and declaring the glass either half-full or half-empty.

A perhaps more important factor, however, was that the two groups were looking at different aspects of consumer sentiment. The Conference Board was measuring monthly fluctuations in the public's view of the economy. The Deloitte and NRF survey focused more narrowly on holiday gift-giving.

The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index fell sharply in October to its lowest level since last October, signaling a warning to retailers for the approaching holiday season.

The index, which measures the public's confidence in the health of the U.S. economy, now stands at 135.2, a steep decline from the 142.5 reached last month and the record high of 144.7 recorded in January and May.

Still, the index remains at a high level, beating out October 1999, when it was at 135, and October 1998, the start of the Asian financial crisis, when consumer confidence was 119.3.

This October's fall was triggered by "a cooling economy and apprehension regarding soaring oil prices and volatility in the financial markets," said Lynn Franco, director of The Conference Board's Consumer Research Center.

Economists warned that October's drop does not suggest the nation is becoming tight-fisted with its cash, but rather that consumers are adopting a wait-and-see attitude.

This month's decline was caused by both components of the index posting declines. The Present Situation Index fell to 177.0 from 182.5 and The Expectations Index declined to 107.4 from 115.9.

Consumers were less optimistic in October about business conditions. According to the survey, the percentage of respondents who felt current business conditions were "good" fell to 43.5% from 47.9%. Those rating conditions as "bad" increased to 9.5% from 8.8%. The employment outlook was also less favorable. Consumers claiming jobs were "hard to get" rose to 12.1% from 10.6% and those who felt jobs were plentiful fell to 49.7% from 52.5%. Income prospects were also less optimistic. Now, only 24.2% of respondents anticipate an increase in their incomes, down substantially from 28.1%.

Consumers were considerably less upbeat about the short-term outlook in October than in September. The percentage of respondents expecting an improvement in business conditions over the next six months fell to 16.5% from 19.0%. The percentage anticipating conditions to worsen rose to 7.2% from 5.6%. And 13.1% of consumers expect fewer jobs to become available, up from 10.9%.

Saying October's decrease was deeper than expected, Moody's Investors Services' chief economist John Lonski said the upcoming elections, weaker equity markets and the drop in manufacturing activity due to the weak euro were to blame for consumers' jitters.

Lonski said consumers may be more jittery than pessimistic and perhaps would resume spending following last week's elections.

Economists said to expect a better reading on the economy after the elections and the financial markets' response to it. Eight years ago, consumer confidence was down 5% in October and jumped 20% in November following President Clinton's first election victory.

Not all the news about consumption and confidence is downbeat. Last week, the Federal Reserve said that consumer credit rose by $13.4 billion in September, tying in with a Commerce Department report that new home sales soared in September by a larger than expected 9.2%, the highest level in six months.

Also, an increasing number of respondents to the Consumer Confidence Index said they plan to purchase big-ticket items within the next six months. For example, 4.5% indicated they plan to buy a new car, up from 3.7%; 1.2% indicated they plan to buy a new home; and half said they intended to take a vacation, up from 45.7%.

Lonski also noted the declines in confidence were not uniformly distributed across the nation. New England, Mountain and Pacific states tended to rank higher in confidence.

He predicted the upcoming holiday would be neither a bonanza nor a bust.

The report from Deloitte & Touche and the NRF seemed to stress the bonanza possibilities of the season.

"Consumer confidence is still high relative to a few years ago," says Irwin Cohen, global managing director, consumer business practice, Deloitte & Touche. "What we've seen over the past year is that sales have yet to be significantly impacted by hesitant consumers.

"Results indicate that shoppers are keeping an eye on higher gas prices, but they have faith that the economy will remain healthy. All these factors point to a successful holiday season for retailers."

Although the basic fundamentals that drive consumer spending -- jobs and income -- remain buoyant in 2000, some of this year's respondents did voice a concern about rising gasoline prices. Slightly more than a quarter said that the higher gas prices would likely decrease their holiday spending. The concern was mostly among respondents with household income of $30,000 or less. Households with income of $75,000 or greater were far less wary.

In contrast to the hesitancy over rising gasoline prices, consumers were hardly phased by the slumping stock market or the slow upward creep in interest rates. Less than one in 10 consumers said the stock market's volatility would likely cause a decrease in their gift buying, and only 17% felt that higher interest rates would slow their spending. The lower income groups were also slightly more concerned about interest rates than were the upper income households.

Despite these small concerns about holiday 2000, most consumers remain upbeat about the economy in 2001. Just as last year, 77% said they believe the economy will improve or remain the same next year.

The survey also found that discount department stores are continuing to increase in popularity among shoppers across ages, regions, incomes and genders.

Currently, a record 83% of shoppers say they will spend at least some of their gift-buying time at the discounters. Even three-quarters of households with income of $75,000 or greater plan to visit their local discount department store. In 1993, only 57% of all households planned to shop at a discount store.

Catalog use, which in the past few years has risen in popularity, has started to decline. In 2000, 38% of shoppers expect to spend some time perusing catalogs for gift ideas. Last year, the share was a record 42%. In 1993, only 19% of shoppers were flipping through catalog pages.

Many of those consumers appear to be going to the Internet, with 54% of all respondents saying they are on the Web. This percentage has doubled in only three years. Usage was high across all age groups except those 65 years of age or older. Nearly 70% of all households headed by someone 25 to 34 years of age use the Internet, as do a strong 78% of households with income of $75,000 or greater.

More than half, 55%, of all Internet users had made a purchase on-line in the past 12 months. Males were slightly more likely to have made a purchase than were females. The younger age groups and the higher income segments were also more likely to have bought a product or service on the Web.

Satisfaction levels with the purchase experience were generally high, but not universally so. Consumers' satisfaction with on-line shopping was rated 8.1, using a scale of 1 through 10, where 10 was "extremely satisfied." They were basing their rating on the 12 orders they had placed, on average, over the past year, and their total on-line spending of $1,206 for those 12 orders.

Consumers said they like shopping on-line mostly because of the 24/7 access and the fact that it saves time. Also, they said they appreciated being able to browse without being hassled by sales help and that they could easily obtain product information on-line, which helped the buying decision. The promise of a quick delivery to the home also kept shoppers coming back to the cyberspace store, as did the lure of not having to pay sales taxes.

However, some consumers were dissatisfied with their cyberretail experience. Slightly more than one in five of Internet purchasers said they had had at least one negative experience in the past year. The younger age groups were generally more critical than were the older age groups. On average, Internet buyers said they had 1.6 negative experiences, with the top reasons being: The merchandise received was not as represented, the item was delivered late, and the product or service was never received.