Consumer confidence to improve only slightly in September
NEW YORK - Consumers' confidence in the economy, which plummeted in August, is expected to show only slight improvement in figures being released Tuesday. Shoppers haven't yet cut their spending compared with last year, and forecasts for the winter holidays point to slightly higher sales than a year ago. But the gloomy consumer mood isn't good news heading into the crucial winter holidays. Economists surveyed by FactSet expect that the Conference Board, a private research group, will report Tuesday that its consumer confidence index rose to 46 in September from 44.5 in August. The August reading was the lowest since April 2009, and it was almost 15 points below July's reading of 59.2. A reading above 90 indicates the economy is on solid footing; above 100 signals strong growth.Economists watch the number closely because consumer spending — including major items like health care — accounts for about 70 percent of U.S. economic activity. The report on September's mood is to be released at 10 a.m. EDT. The Conference Board bases its index on results of a survey it conducts the first half of each month with 5,000 of randomly selected households nationwide. August's reading was skewed by consumer anxiety stemming from Standard & Poor's downgrade of federal debt on Aug. 5, four days into the survey. Renewed concern about the health of European banks didn't help.Not much has changed since, although the stock market's swings are modulating. Concern persists about a potential crisis in Europe, and traditional worries about jobs, rising costs and the sluggish housing market continue in the U.S. Net job creation came to a halt in August in the U.S. The official unemployment rate stayed at 9.1 percent. And consumers are spending more for everything from food to clothing as retailers compensate for higher labor and materials costs. Nevertheless, back-to-school shopping went well for stores, though a weak job market and higher basic household costs are driving a wider wedge between spending among households with incomes over $100,000 and those below, says Alison Paul, vice chairman of Deloitte LLP. A retail analyst, Paul said shoppers will remain focused on deals into the winter holidays but could spend a little more than last year, barring catastrophic events. "I think we are going to have an OK Christmas," she said. "What shoppers say and what they do are two different things. Shoppers continue to sound down, but they still show up at the stores." Deloitte expects stores' revenue to grow 2.5 percent to 3 percent for the period from November through January. Last year, it rose 5.9 percent. ShopperTrak and the International Council of Shopping Centers trade group are on the same wavelength. For November and December combined, they expect a gain of 3 percent, compared with a 4.1 percent increase in 2010. ShopperTrak measures foot traffic in 25,000 stores in the U.S. and blends those figures with economic data. And all those holiday predictions are rosier than the actual gain of 2.6 percent on average that the National Retail Federation measured for the last 10 years. The National Retail Federation, the nation's largest retail trade group, is to offer its revenue forecast next month.