The consumer spirit is alive and well this holiday season, according to the findings of a new National Retail Federation (NRF) survey. The NRF 2003 Holiday Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, conducted by BIGresearch for NRF, found that the average consumer plans to spend $671.89 this holiday season, up from 2002 when consumers spent an average of $648.85.

The survey also found that 92.2 percent of consumers plan to celebrate Christmas, 5.8 percent will celebrate Hanukkah, and 1.6 percent will celebrate Kwanzaa.

On average, consumers plan to spend $518.44 on gifts this year–$393.69 on gifts for family members, $73.27 on friends, $17.16 on co-workers, and $34.32 on other gifts. Consumers also plan to spend $34.18 on decorations, $25.79 on greeting cards and postage, $79.42 on candy and food, and $14.06 on flowers. This year, more than half of consumers (50.8%) also plan to take advantage of sales and promotional items to purchase non-gift items for themselves, with the average consumer purchasing additional items planning to spend $146.69.

NRF is projecting that holiday sales will increase 5.7 percent this year to $217.4 billion, which would be the largest increase since 1999.

With some retailers seeing between 25-40 percent of their annual sales during the holiday season, “There’s still time for retailers to show positive gains in 2003,” said NRF President and CEO Tracy Mullin. “Retailers can expect a much better holiday season than last year.”

Last year’s gifts will remain popular this year, with more than half of consumers hoping to receive books, CDs, DVDs, videos, or video games (52.7%) and clothing or clothing accessories (51.2%). A surprising leap came in the gift card sector, with 48.4 percent of consumers wishing for gift cards this year, up from 41.3 percent last year. Consumers also hope to receive electronics (33.9%), jewelry (23.9%), and home furnishings (20.8%).

Though traffic and sales have improved, consumers are still focused on price. When asked why they choose to shop at certain stores for the holidays, 38.9 percent of consumers said they base their decision to shop at certain retailers on sales or price discounts and 20.7 percent choose to shop at retailers with every-day low prices. However, nearly one in five consumers (18.1%) plan to shop at stores based on their selection.

“Though many consumers are more financially comfortable now than they were a year ago, they are still looking for great prices and savings on gifts and everyday merchandise,” said Phil Rist, Vice President of Strategy for BIGresearch. “The retailers that succeed this holiday season will be those that continue to focus on sales and promotions to drive traffic.”

An increasing number of consumers are starting their holiday shopping earlier each year. This year, 42.8 percent of consumers plan to begin their holiday shopping in October or before, up from 39.1 percent last year. Another 35.0 percent of consumers plan to begin shopping in November with the remaining 22.1 percent planning to wait until December.

NRF highly suggests shopping early this year. “With retailers continuing to manage their inventory very well, the golden rule for consumers this holiday is ‘Buy it when you see it,’” said Mullin. “There’s no guarantee that the red sweater you’re eyeing will continue to be in stock as the holiday season nears.”

Consumers plan to shop in a variety of stores for holiday merchandise. Discounters will see the most traffic with three-fourths of consumers (75.1%) planning to shop at a discounter this holiday. Consumers will also be heading to department stores (53.1%), specialty stores like clothing or electronics stores (36.7%), grocery stores (44.4%), and online (36.0%).