NEW YORK — Consumer purchases of nongift apparel this holiday could light up the hearts of fashion players: The category is seen realizing the biggest percentage growth in the season’s spending among a half-dozen segments like gifts, home improvements and entertainment.

Americans are projected to spend $177 for nongift apparel, on average, in November and December, up 26 percent from the $140 they spent a year ago, Deloitte’s 2003 Holiday Survey found. Consumption at that level would represent 9.8 percent of an adult’s holiday budget, which Deloitte is anticipating will average $1,803, up 8.6 percent from $1,661 a year ago.

“Pent-up demand is combining with an economic bright spot: Consumer cash flow is better than it’s been in recent years,” said Richard Giss, consumer business partner at Deloitte, in analyzing the bullish outlook for apparel. “Consumer cash flow was up 4.5 percent in October, from a revised gain of 4.2 percent in September, continuing an upswing that began in March.” Consumer cash flow comprises real wages, real home prices, taxes and unemployment claims.

The Internet is the venue Deloitte expects will see the most holiday shoppers, as 62 percent of consumers in the Northeast said they’d go online to do seasonal shopping; 56 percent in both the South and the West, and 52 percent in the Midwest said they’d do so. In a separate forecast, Jupiter Research is projecting apparel purchases made online will total $2 billion this holiday, an 18 percent increase over $1.7 billion a year ago, and surpassed only by online transactions for PCs. “Plans to buy clothing online this holiday skew heavily toward women,” said Patti Freeman Evans, retail analyst at Jupiter Research, who pointed out 42 percent of women said they’d buy apparel online versus 26 percent of men.

Jupiter expects 64 million cybershoppers this November and December, up 19 percent from 54 million during holiday 2002, and online holiday spending averaging $265 per person, up 3 percent from $257 a year ago.

Traditional department stores ranked as the second-most-popular holiday shopping venues and warehouse clubs placed third in all regions except the Northeast, where small clothing stores were third, with a 39 percent share of the 17,000 adults surveyed by Deloitte saying they planned to visit them. Nonetheless, observed Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at Port Washington, N.Y.-based market researcher NPD Group, “There’s an opportunity for department stores that’s being missed. Teens who don’t usually shop department stores shop them at holiday to find presents for their parents. Yet the stores haven’t been doing anything special to get these customers to shop them the rest of the year.”Gifts, not surprisingly, are expected to retain the biggest share of consumers’ holiday budgets, or 30.1 percent, despite an estimated drop in spending on presents of 3.2 percent, to an average of $543 per person from $561 last year. Home improvements are projected to win the second-biggest share of wallet, with expenditures of $399 on average, up 17 percent from $341.

Holiday purchasing is anticipated to be most robust in the Northeast, where Deloitte estimates it will hit $2,085 per person, or 16 percent more than the overall average. That’s the region in which about 50 percent, said they feel their job is extremely secure or very secure.

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