SALT LAKE CITY — For many consumers the best day of the holiday season arrived Wednesday, the day after Christmas, when shoppers like Jennifer Leek of West Jordan scored great bargains on holiday decorations and other items marked with slashed prices.
“You get it for half-price or more off,” she said of the Christmas decorations. “Then we just store it for the winter.”
Leek and her husband, Scott, stocked up on new LED Christmas lights to add to their collection of about 8,000 lights that now takes two days to hang and install at their home.
“Next year we get to plan for putting up even more Christmas lights,” he said during a lighter moment in the shopping aisles.
But it wasn't just Christmas decorations. The Leeks bought “a lot of gift cards and gave them out this year.” That made shopping for family members easier and allowed their relatives to get the gifts they wanted. It also sent shoppers scurrying back to stores to redeem items with their plastic gift cards.
Getting consumers back in the stores is good news for retailers, who suffered a bleaker-than-hoped-for holiday shopping season.
A SpendingPulse report released Wednesday by MasterCard Advisors, the professional services arm of MasterCard, showed that during the period Oct. 30 to Dec. 24, U.S. consumers increased their year-over-year spending by only 0.7 percent, down from 2 percent in 2011.
The report measured retail sales of apparel, electronics, online purchases, luxury items, jewelry and furnishings — which represent approximately 30 percent to 35 percent of total U.S. retail spending.
Any potential final week surge will likely be blunted by the ongoing fear of higher taxes from a failure by lawmakers to deal with the looming fiscal cliff.
“It is pretty scary right now,” Leek said. “We cut back a little bit because of it. We try not to think about the (fiscal cliff) and just try to move on,” Jennifer Leek said.
“We’ll cut back next year depending upon what (Congress and the president) decide.”
Autumn Marler, mother of five from Salt Lake City, said the fiscal cliff was a “huge” concern for her family too.
“It was really hard for us this Christmas,” she said. “We had to have a little help this year.”
She said the thought of having more money taken out of their pay is very distressing.
“They can’t,” she exclaimed. “That’s just not something I can think about right now. I can’t fathom it!”
While some families dreaded the potential rise in taxes, not everyone was so dismayed.
Engaged couple Penny Pendleton and Mike James said the economic turmoil has had little effect on their current holiday spending or how they view the economy long-term.
“I was in a better place financially to indulge a little on my family,” Pendleton said, who said he works three jobs. “I’m in favor of paying a little bit more in federal income taxes to help support everyone. I think it will be OK.”
James said he believes that the “fiscal cliff” issue will be resolved to the overall benefit of most taxpayers, so he is not overly concerned about it right now.
“They’re not crazy enough to let something (disastrous) happen,” he said. “They are just blustering.”
Until recently, European transplant Sven Haynes had been unemployed, so money was “tight” this holiday season. But despite those financial hardships, he is not too worried about the nation’s economic future since relocating to Utah.
“I believe in sharing the wealth in society,” he said. “I don’t mind being taxed. I’m fine with it.”
Haynes’ girlfriend Lara LaPearl, expressed sentiments similar to those shared by James.
“I have faith that they are going to come to a conclusion,” said LaPearl. “They know that they have to, so I feel pretty good about it.”
That optimism wasn't shared by all would-be shoppers during the past two months:
“The 2012 holiday shopping season experienced only marginal growth when compared to the 2011 season,” said Michael McNamara of Global Solutions Leader, MasterCard SpendingPulse. “The Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and North Central regions of the country all lagged the national average growth, while the Southern and Western regions of the country experienced more positive holiday shopping seasons.”
The report noted that the season had a distinctly different pattern to prior holiday shopping seasons with a difficult start coinciding with Hurricane Sandy. Then, the first two weeks of November were negative as the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions experienced substantial declines in holiday related categories.
“While in most years, there is a similar soft patch in the first half of December, this year’s “soft patch” was weaker than usual,” McNamara said. “Outside of Hurricane Sandy’s impact zone, the holiday season was definitely positive and more in line with expectations. But given that the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions account for about 24 percent of total U.S. retail, if those regions go negative, they definitely have an impact on the overall numbers.”