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Retailers Should Prepare for a Season of 'Precision' Shopping

bar-code-lase-11101102 Credit: Dreamstime.com

They may not be full-blown control freaks, but U.S. consumers expect to be "careful" and "controlled" in their spending this holiday season , a new shopping study shows. "Precision shoppers"— those who know exactly what they want when shopping and who aren't afraid to hunt for bargains — will dominate, experts predict, and they will be inclined to shop around to find the best value.

Though this year's shoppers don't plan on being miserly, retailers should not count on a year-end bonanza, according to an online survey of 500 U.S. consumers conducted in September by the management consultants at Accenture. Almost nine out of ten of the respondents said they plan to spend the same as last year or less. Only the high-income respondents earning more than $100,000 annually expect to spend more than $500 on holiday gifts this year.

Of the shoppers who say they will spend less this holiday season, 43 percent said it is because they have less discretionary income to spend this year. This isn't a figment of their imagination; between the official end of the recession in June 2009 and June 2011, inflation-adjusted median household income fell by 6.7 percent, according to a study by two former Census Bureau officials released Oct. 10.

Discounts, sales and prices will be top of mind this holiday season, with 40 percent of survey respondents saying that an item being on sale is the single most important factor in their decision to purchase.

But the dominance of discount stores with value shoppers is beginning to dissipate somewhat. Although they remain the top holiday shopping destination, the stores' grip on consumers is loosening; the number of shoppers this year that said they will shop at a discount retailer slipped by 8 percent to 73 percent from last year's 81 percent of all shoppers.

The survey highlighted the significant challenge for retailers regarding consumers using their mobile phones, smartphones or tablet computers to compare prices online while in a store. More than half of respondents using a mobile or smartphone for their shopping this year will use the device to compare prices in a store and 43 percent believe that they will help them bag better discounts.

"This holiday season will see the balance of power continue to tip in favor of the consumer," said Janet Hoffman, managing director of Accenture’s retail practice. "'Precision shoppers’ will dominate. They will be very targeted about where and what they buy, and will be more inclined to shop around for the best value. Stores should focus on providing an experience and services that create a sense of extra value in the mind of the shopper."