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Poll: One-Third Feel Financially Worse Off

Though 31 percent of Americans are feeling worse off financially than they did last year, half of adults remain enthusiastic about the holiday season, according to the latest Consumer Reports Holiday Shopping Poll.

Despite their optimistic holiday spirit, shoppers will watch their wallets as the average amount they plan on spending on holiday gifts is expected to decline for the fourth consecutive year. The Consumer Reports survey found that Americans intend to spend an average of $679, which is about $20 less than last year.

"The recession may be officially over, but many consumers remain concerned about paying their bills and the security of their jobs," said Tod Marks, Consumer Reports senior editor and resident shopping expert. "Despite these ongoing economic challenges, people are largely optimistic this time of year. They haven't stopped spending, they're just trying to get the most for their dollars."

Most consumers plan to pay for their gifts with cash. However, the use of gift cards to pay for holiday purchases is on the rise. This year, more people said they plan to pay with gift cards, particularly store-issued gift cards, which don't have the drawbacks of those issued by banks or credit card companies.

The Consumer Reports survey also revealed that fewer Americans are relying on their credit cards to finance their holiday presents. Those who do intend to pay by credit expect to charge an average of $714 -- $78 more than last year.

And while most credit card users anticipate that they will pay off their holiday purchases by the end of January (71 percent), and thus avoid high finance charges, the statistics suggest they're perhaps being overly optimistic. As of October, 13.6 million Americans were still saddled with credit-card debit from last year's holiday purchases.

The Holiday Shopping Experience

The final holiday shopping weekend is imminent and many shoppers searching for specific items tell Consumer Reports that they're ending up disappointed. As of early December, one-third of consumers said that an item they wanted -- particularly a sale item -- was out-of-stock.

Mass-merchant discounters such as Target and Walmart continue to be Americans' retailer of choice. However, an increasing percentage of consumers are shopping at department stores such as Macy's and liquidators such as TJ Maxx and Marshalls. But the biggest increase in shopping activity is taking place at value-oriented outlet stores -- 41 percent said they are shopping at the outlets, up from 29 percent last year.

Last-Minute Tips

Some shoppers may be frantically trying to finish (or perhaps they are just getting started) their holiday shopping during this big weekend. Here are some important things to keep in mind when braving the stores.

** Check return policies. Although it seems like a no-brainer, 46 percent of shoppers who buy in-stores actually don't bother to check the retailer's return policy before making a purchase. Add the stress of last-minute shopping to the mix and consumers may end up with an unwanted item that may be difficult to return.

** Get a gift receipt. Some retailers may implement more lenient return-policies during the holiday season; other merchants won't accept returns without a receipt. More than half of shoppers reported that they typically don't give a gift receipt with their presents.

** Be wary of instant credit. Some shoppers may be enticed by savings offered by opening a store charge card, but most aren't inclined to bite on these offers. Only seven percent of Americans reported that they did so last year to save on purchases.

The Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted a telephone survey of a nationally representative probability sample of telephone households. 1,013 interviews were completed among adults aged 18+. Interviewing took place over December 3-6, 2010. The margin of error is +/- 3.1% points at a 95% confidence level.

The full results of the poll are available at http://www.consumerreports.org/.

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