Christmas Trends: While America draws line on seasonal spending blitz

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When "Christmas" in the United States was progressively replaced by the word "holiday" (as in holiday presents, holiday cards and even holiday trees), in deference to the cluster of Jewish, black American, as well as Christian festivals at this time of year, no one surely expected that Christmas shopping would go the same way.

But with ever fewer people given a pretext not to go "holiday shopping", sales are still reported to be slack. The anticipated 5 to 7 per cent increase over November and December last year has not so far materialised. The increase looks set to be closer to 2 to 3 per cent, roughly in line with inflation.

To be sure, the Friday after the late November Thanksgiving holiday - the traditional start of seasonal shopping - saw queues forming outside the more popular department stores before the special opening time of 7am, and the shopping masses seething amid the laden shelves. The problem, it had emerged by the time everyone had gone back to work on Monday, was that no one had been buying very much.

The big sales notched up in the early Nineties had not been repeated. Retailers had hoped that the flourishing state of the US economy and especially the record low unemployment, might have encouraged people to throw off their caution of the past two years and buy. Instead, they complained about the crowds, the inconvenience and the lack of bargains.

To retailers' dismay, the non-buying trend continued through December, with analysts searching for an explanation and big stores hoping their worst fear would be proved wrong: that lavish Christmas shopping is a thing of the past.

More people may have work, but those newly off social security are poorly paid; the higher-paid still fear their jobs are insecure, and a round of winter redundancies at several big companies has done nothing to reassure them. Then there is indebtedness: US households have an average credit card debt of $7,000 (pounds 4,500) - maybe they have reached their limit.

Some may be waiting for the January sales - but sales have become almost permanent anyway. Americans may be reluctant to pay full price for anything, but mostly they do not have to, not even in December.

What retailers dread is an irreversible shift, occasioned in part by greater prosperity, in part by the spread of credit, in part by changing attitudes. Many households have what they want already or can buy it when they need it. Christmas no longer provides an excuse.