Americans are expected to spend at the highest rate in three years during what's traditionally the year's busiest shopping season, according to the nation's largest retail industry trade group.
But the spending trends that have become prevalent in the years since the Great Recession are expected to continue into the winter holiday shopping season. Industry watchers say shoppers will spend only if there are big discounts. And there will be a huge divide in spending between the haves and have-nots.
"It goes without saying there still remains some uneasiness and anxiety among consumers when it comes to their purchase decisions," said Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the National Retail Federation. "The lagging economic recovery, though improving, is still top of mind for many Americans."
Overall, the NRF said Tuesday it expects sales during the November and December period to be up 4.1 percent, to $616.9 billion, a percentage point higher than in 2013. That would be the highest increase since 2011, when the rise was 4.8 percent.
The prediction is an indicator for stores that rely on the final two months of the year, which, on average, account for nearly 20 percent of annual retail industry sales.
There have been some positive economic reports lately that suggest Americans are ready to spend. A September surge in hiring helped push down the nation's unemployment rate to a six-year low of 5.9 percent. And the stock market is up 6 percent since the start of the year.
But wages aren't rising, making it hard for the average person to juggle daily living expenses.
That has created a divide between the wealthiest shoppers and everyone else. In fact, since the Great Recession, spending by the wealthiest 5 percent of consumers accounts for more than one-third of total spending, according to 2010 research by Moody's Analytics.
Given the divide, Strategy& - formerly Booz & Co. - and PwC broke out a holiday spending forecast between those who earn less than $50,000 a year and those who earn more than $50,000.
Based on a survey of 2,200 shoppers, they found that those who make less than $50,000 plan to spend $377 for the holidays, down from $435 in 2013. But those who make $50,000 or more plan to spend about $978, close to the same as before.
"The spending divide among shoppers is widening, creating two distinct groups that we are tracking - survivalists and selectionists," said Steven Barr of PwC's U.S. retail and consumer practice.