(Laura Simon) [Order this photo]
Eighteen retailers reported November sales at stores open at least a year were up 1.7 percent compared with the same period a year ago, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. The organization had forecast a gain between 4.5 and 5.5 percent in holiday spending.
Several local shoppers said they will spend about the same on gifts this year as they did last year.
"I don't go overboard on Christmas," said Janet Whitener of Fredericktown, Mo., who was shopping at West Park Mall on Monday. "The most important thing is being with family and enjoying each other's company -- not gifts."
She already has made all but a couple of her purchases.
Loretta Hilt of Cairo, Ill., said she is about halfway done with her Christmas shopping. She, too, will spend about the same abount on presents for friends and family.
Cape Girardeau Target executive team leader Steve Trese is counting on more shoppers like Hilt to bolster holiday sales closer to Christmas.
"People are waiting a little longer because it's a longer shopping season. There are five weeks this year between Thanksgiving and Christmas," he said.
Thanksgiving was two days earlier this year and Christmas Day falls on a Tuesday, giving shoppers a full five weekends to get their Christmas shopping done.
While Black Friday sales and traffic increased compared to last year, Trese said the Saturday after Thanksgiving was slower than in 2011.
According to the National Retail Federation, a record 247 million shoppers visited stores and websites during the four-day period beginning Thanksgiving. That's up 9.2 percent compared to last year in a survey of 4,000 shoppers. Spending over the four-day weekend totaled $59.1 billion, up 12.8 percent from 2011.
Kohl's sales nationwide were down 5.6 percent, Macy's were down .7 percent and Target was down a full 1 percent in November 2012 compared to a year earlier, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers November sales report.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, isn't included in the International Council of Shopping Centers study.
Cape Girardeau Wal-Mart Supercenter general manager Gary Elders said Black Friday sales locally were better this year due in part to a staggered offering of specials.
"It helped get more people in the door, but it wasn't easy on our staff," Elders said.
Shoppers seem to be spending about the same as this time last year, he said, but he believes the store in Cape Girardeau and the company as a whole is gaining back customers it had lost over the past two years.
"There seems to be more of a plan this year. They know what they're going to spend this much for this and this much for that and know what they're going to get," he said. Wal-Mart also has more customers using its layaway service this year, compared to last year, Elders said.
Wal-Mart stopped offering layaway in 2005 but brought the service back last year.
The top factor holding back spending increases is the slow growth of disposable personal income, according to Dr. Bruce Domazlicky, director of the Center for Economic and Business Research at Southeast Missouri State University.
In the third quarter, disposable personal income -- income after taxes -- increased only a half percent over the previous quarter, he said.
Slow income growth coupled with general economic uncertainty have people reluctant to open their wallets.
A weak job market and worry about whether Congress can avoid tax increases and spending cuts before the U.S. reaches the "fiscal cliff" in January are troubling. If Congress doesn't reach a deal, it will mean smaller paychecks for most Americans.
Domazlicky said 3 percent growth in holiday spending is the best retailers can expect, which will mean lower profits for stores.
"Stores have gotten better at managing inventory, so it is unlikely they will get stuck with a lot of unsold merchandise at the end of the season," he said.
Still, the U.S. economy is deeply dependent, probably too dependent, on consumer spending, Domazlicky said.
Weaker holiday spending, which can make up 40 percent of some retailers annual revenue, means that overall economic growth is likely to remain modest at about 2 percent, according to Domazlicky.
"A modest growth rate of 2 percent will likely just be sufficient to absorb new entrants into the job market and not do a lot to reduce the overall unemployment rate in the economy," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.