NEW YORK — Not everyone is bullish about the holiday shopping season.

Despite an opening weekend that left retailers relatively cheerful, consultants Retail Forward on Monday forecast that Americans plan to curtail their holiday gift spending by about 4 percent this year, compared with holiday 2002, spending $698, on average — and the anticipated decline could portend a chilly season for many apparel players.

Those were the findings of the Columbus, Ohio-based consultant’s first-ever Monthly Shopper Update, the results of which it disclosed on Monday. The research was culled from a nationally representative sample comprising 1,800 primary household shoppers who were surveyed online last weekend about their spending plans between Dec. 1 and Christmas.

Nearly one-third of those shoppers, or 31 percent, said they plan to spend less than they did on holiday gifts last year, while 20 percent intend to up their outlays. Approximately half of the households polled expressed more concern this year than last about finding the lowest prices for holiday gifts and 45 percent were aiming to spend more than they did during holiday 2002 in stores that focus on low prices, like Wal-Mart, Target, and Kohl’s.

For the fourth quarter, Retail Forward is anticipating apparel stores will realize 4 percent growth in dollar volume, versus the prior-year period, as promotions and price deflation eat into unit sales gains projected at 6.5 percent. “Growth at that rate would be down from [dollar value] gains of 6.2 percent made by apparel retailers in the third quarter, but up slightly from 3.9 percent in the prior-year period,” noted Steve Spiwack, an economist at Retail Forward.

“We saw apparel sales start to wane in October, after a big jump in the [calendar] third quarter, which probably reflected the tax cuts that took effect in July and the sustained rebound of the stock market, which began in March,” Spiwack added. “People were feeling wealthier and buying more apparel.”

The ever-widening gap between affluent consumers and lower-income earners is signaling that most gift shopping will be centered either in stores with upscale merchandise and services or in those best positioned to serve the most price-driven shoppers. On the high end, apparel merchants likely to benefit include Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom, Spiwack said, while those best positioned among their value-driven counterparts include T.J. Maxx, Ross Stores and Wal-Mart.Conversely, retailers stuck in the middle, such as Sears and J.C. Penney, figure to be the big losers this holiday, Spiwack forecast. That’s because they will neither offer the lowest prices on the hottest items, nor appeal to upscale shoppers who are feeling more confident about their household finances and planning to spend more this season.

Affluent households, defined by Retail Forward as those with annual income north of $100,000, account for 14 percent of all U.S. households, while lower-income households, defined as those with annual incomes of $25,000, represent 29 percent of the country’s homes.

With those in the affluent bracket feeling more confident about their finances this year, Retail Forward found they plan to spend $1,257 on holiday presents, with 26 percent of the group expecting to spend more and 21 percent planning to shell out less. At the same time, affluent consumers will be hunting for bargains, with 29 percent of the group saying they’ll use more of their holiday budget this year than last at stores offering low prices.

Meanwhile, those in lower-income households intend to allocate an average of $379 to holiday gifts this year, as 38 percent say they will spend less than last year, and 19 percent anticipate they will spend more.

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