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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News
Christmas shoppers are spending at stores like this Shopko nearly as much as they are at malls.

WEST VALLEY CITY — Jamie Christensen, like many Utahns, was searching for hot Christmas deals last week. The West Valley mother had two children in tow, daughters Ryki, 9, and Havyn, 5, as she snaked her cart through the aisles of Shopko during a morning excursion.

The target? Good gifts for the girls' friends.

But it wasn't her only shopping trip of the season, and she expected that by the time Christmas rolls around Tuesday, she will have topped her holiday spending from last year.

"I'll probably spend more," she said. "We have another addition to the family, a little boy that's coming right before Christmas. Without that, it probably would be about the same as last year.

"I thought I'd spend a lot more this year. It's probably just the prices and the stores that we've gone to. I'm doing smart shopping, I guess. I've just been a little more careful this year."

"Careful" or not, Utahns are spending some big bucks on gifts this season. According to a recent Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll, 86 percent of Utahns surveyed said they expected to spend more than $200 on Christmas gifts. And that is despite 30 percent saying they will spend "definitely less" than a year ago.

Marlies Avery of West Valley said she will be forking over less this year, likely about $200.

"Our income isn't as good this year, and gas prices are too high," she said while shopping with daughter Shayla, 2, and a girl she was tending, Nora Waldrop, 4.

Just how much

Ten percent of poll respondents said they will spend less than $200 on gifts. The biggest categories were more than $800, which garnered 33 percent, and $200 to $499, with 30 percent.

Thirty-three percent expected to spend about the same amount as last year. Only 19 percent figured to spend "definitely" or "probably" more.

A total of 411 participated in the survey conducted Dec. 12-15 by Dan Jones & Associates. The results have a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent.

Wednesday morning's Shopko trip for Kimberly Schooley of Stockton was not for Christmas but rather for a gift for her daughter's wedding. That was one factor keeping Christmas spending in line with — and not more than — last year.

"A brand-new house, we've got the wedding, we've got a baby coming, so we can't go too overboard," Schooley said.

Would she spend more if she could? "Oh, of course," she replied without hesitation. "I love it. I have to stay out of the stores so I don't keep buying stuff."

Schooley's estimate for holiday spending this year is about $500. "A lot of my family doesn't live here, so I had to ship a lot of stuff, so that cut into my shopping," she said.

Another shopper, Jamie Humphreys of West Valley, expected to spend about the same as a year ago, before she corrected herself. "Actually less," she said. "My oldest is 18, so he's not getting as much this year."

Still, Humphreys calculated overall costs of more than $1,000. That's because she will be getting gifts for four children, four step-children, six grandchildren, a sister and her brother.

"We've been shopping for a couple of months now," she said, with a tuckered-out, 3-year-old son, Christian, asleep in her cart.

Where we shop

Humphreys said she preferred Shopko, Wal-Mart and Kmart over malls — "I just go once in a while when we go see Santa Claus because they're so expensive," she said of malls — but the survey indicates that both malls and big-box stores are hits with Utahns.

One-fourth of respondents said they did most of their in-store Christmas shopping at malls. Only one percentage point behind were big-box stores, followed by 18 percent for non-mall department stores.

Christensen said she finds Wal-Mart "kind of disappointing anymore," and instead found herself more at malls, plus Toys "R" Us and Shopko. "They end up having more big sales right before the holiday," she said, "so you end up going more and getting more and saving a lot more if you get a good sale."

Avery said she shies away from malls, preferring Wal-Mart and Shopko. "It's the prices," she said. "I do like the deals."

Schooley said Wal-Mart and malls get most of her business, in part because Wal-Mart is the "only thing" in Tooele County. She stops at Valley Fair Mall for convenience reasons — it's near her workplace.

But Schooley also reckoned that her online gift spending would be about 25 percent of her holiday haul this year.

Online vs. in line

Among Utahns in the survey, 21 percent figured they would spend more online than at brick-and-mortar stores, while 34 percent expected to buy more when passing through store doors than clicking through portals.

"I live in such a remote area, and then I spend my time working when I'm in Salt Lake County, so I don't have a lot of time to go shopping," Schooley said. "And there were a couple of specific things I wanted that I figured I could find online rather than going from store to store, trying to find it."

But 30 percent of respondents said they do not shop online at all.

Avery said she is "not an online shopper," mostly because she worries about the threat of identity theft from credit card use. Christensen said inexperience with online shopping leaves her intimidated. "I've looked online," she said. "There's all these things that say you get better deals online, but I just don't think I'm educated enough to feel comfortable."

Humphreys had a pragmatic reason for her in-store preference.

"I think people want to see what they're getting," she said. "I want to see what I got. Instead of guessing and hoping it's the right thing, I'd rather see what I've got — right in my hands, right now. If I'm paying money for it, I want it right now. I'm an impatient person."

The little folks will need patience as they await the Big Day on Tuesday, but Christensen said the payoff will be a good one for her children, what with her spending $500 to $600 this year on gifts.

"They get pretty spoiled this time of year," she said. "They rake it in."

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