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Are Americans Holding Out for a Holiday Spending Storm?

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Consumer spending was unchanged in September, but at its highest level for the month in six years.

According to Gallup, Americans’ daily self-reports of spending averaged $91 last month, identical to August. But the result was an improvement after drops in spending from August to September each year since 2008. It also followed substantial swings during the summer months that saw spending hit an eight-year high of $100 in July after $88 in June and then dropping back down in August.

“Although spending in the U.S. had been lower in September than in August in each of the past six years, it held steady this year,” Gallup said. “In all but one of those years it subsequently rose in October. The exception was 2012, when the average dropped in both September and October. Last year, September’s average of $88 was only a dollar lower than August’s $89.”

Gallup’s spending estimates are based on phone interviews conducted throughout the month, during which Americans report how much they spent on non-essential goods and services “yesterday,” such as apparel, entertainment and leisure.

Since December 2012, these estimates have consistently averaged $80 or higher in all but one month. By comparison, monthly spending averages were as low as $58 in the four years prior and never higher than $77.

“American consumers this year avoided the September slump in spending typically seen in recent years. That has helped keep average spending for the first nine months of 2016 the highest for any year since 2008,” Gallup said. “Spending patterns of the past decade for the months of October, November and December suggest that spending will increase even further.”

Perhaps that’s why several holiday shopping forecasts are predicting a bumper year for retailers: PricewaterhouseCooper expects a 10 percent surge in spending versus 2015, while the National Retail Federation projects a 3.6% increase and the International Council of Shopping Centers foresees 3.3%.

But Gallup has reason to believe spending won’t follow the normal pattern this year.

“While the relatively high level of September spending could indicate that Americans stayed in a buying mood even after the end of summer vacations and back-to-school shopping, it could also mean that the customary September-to-October rise in spending has already taken place,” the research group said. “And although presidential elections generally do not affect consumer spending, Americans’ negative views about the two major-party candidates could affect consumer confidence and spending in ways not seen in 2008 or 2012.”

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