By  on October 4, 2011

Retailers appear to be on the verge of a virtual — if not spectacularly merry — holiday season.

The NPD Group’s 10th annual survey of consumers’ holiday spending intentions indicates that both online shopping and purchasing through catalogues and mail order should pick up market share in the U.S. during the final months of the year. Thirty-eight percent of consumers expect to shop online during the season, up from 35 percent in 2010. Catalogue and mail-order shopping is planned by 14 percent of the 3,681 respondents to the NPD survey, conducted Sept. 6 to 16, up from 12 percent in 2010.

Discounters remain the most popular anticipated destination for shoppers, with 51 percent checking off that option, but that figure is down from 54 percent a year ago. Department stores climbed to 24 percent from 22 percent, while national chains were unchanged from a year ago at 29 percent. Also unchanged were apparel specialty stores, at 15 percent, while outlet stores ticked up to 17 percent from 16 percent.

Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD, said discounters “are likely to be the most challenged retailers” this holiday.

“They remain steadfast in trying to hang on to consumers that found them when it was all about lower prices,” he said. “But now that consumers are looking for value and also willing to pay a little more, we are seeing the discounters have a hard time hanging on to those consumers.”

Toy stores were flat at 20 percent, warehouse clubs up to 18 percent from 17 percent and electronics stores down to 17 percent from 19 percent.

Apparel remained the most popular gift item, selected by 43 percent of those surveyed, versus 42 percent last year, followed by toys, down to 31 percent from 32 percent. Accessories, including bags and watches, held steady in fifth place at 16 percent, while fragrances picked up a point to 14 percent from 13 percent, moving them to eighth place in the NPD ranking from 10th place in 2010. Among the categories garnering lower responses this year than last were books (20 percent from 23 percent), movies and DVDs (19 percent from 24 percent), electronics (15 percent from 16 percent) and food (14 percent from 15 percent).

The increase in apparel and stability in accessories come a year after large declines in both categories in 2010. Last year, apparel dropped to 42 percent from 49 percent in 2009 while accessories dropped to 16 percent from 22 percent.

Participants in the survey were asked to indicate all types of stores and all classifications of merchandise that fit into their shopping plans rather than checking off a single preference.

NPD’s research found only minor shifts in the amount that consumers intend to spend and when they intend to spend it. The portion expecting to spend more than last year was unchanged at 9 percent, while the percentage indicating they would spend “about the same” rose to 64 percent from 61 percent.

Twenty-seven percent anticipate spending less, down from 30 percent in 2010. Those expecting to start their holiday shopping on Thanksgiving weekend or later came to 41 percent, up from 40 percent last year.

Asked if their shopping trips would include browsing for an item for themselves, 19 percent answered affirmatively, up from 17 percent in 2010.

“This is one of the most important contributors to growth,” said Cohen. “Without self-purchasing during the holiday season, growth is nearly impossible. Seeing this number climb is a good sign that at least consumers are thinking of themselves and plan to take advantage of some of the good deals for themselves.

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