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Did plunging gas prices boost holiday spending?

Ever since oil prices started falling, experts have predicted that consumers would use the extra money saved to spend more on holiday gifts. Did that happen? Sara Germano of the Wall Street Journal joins Hari Sreenivasan from Albany with the latest numbers.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Ever since oil prices started plunging, we've heard experts predict that consumers would use the money they're saving on gas to spend more on Christmas gifts. Did it turn out that way?

    For more about the Christmas shopping season, we are joined now via Skype from Albany, New York by Sara Germano of the Wall Street Journal.

    So considering we have a couple of days left in the calendar year, but really the retail season starts around Thanksgiving, how did we do so far?

  • SARA GERMANO:

    So far, so good. We'll really start to see the results into January and once the government reports its spending data and some of the largest retailers report their quarterly earnings.

    But early indications show that so far, Christmas shoppers and holiday shoppers were coming out in force this season and spending a little bit more than they have in seasons past.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So how much of this is related to kind of an increased consumer confidence combined with that decrease in gas prices that we talked about?

  • SARA GERMANO:

    Yes. Everyone loves to talk about the gas prices. They've been down.

    They're now down below $2 in some states. And that's putting about $450 million a day into American's pockets.

    You know, consumers we've spoken with have said that having that extra bit to spend is going a long way.

    Although some consumers are also saying they're being a little bit more careful with that extra money, and some of it is going to savings.

    So we're really starting to try to look for how much of that extra cash earned by falling gas prices is going to be put back into the economy or saved for some other red-letter day.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    OK. What about that kind of standard question we ask: Are the online retailers taking bigger and bigger chunks out of the brick-and-mortar players, or is it a kind of healthy balance now?

  • SARA GERMANO:

    Well, the biggest issue in retail right now is actually figuring out, you know, who is going to win online sales growth.

    And it's a game the brick-and-mortar retailers, especially the big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Target are trying to compete more effectively with the web-based retailers like Amazon and eBay.

    So, the last few years you have seen definite strides in that direction from the brick-and-mortar retailers.

    Just this year, Wal-Mart said that it would do online price matching to better compete in that area.

    The next phase of this now that Christmas is over, the next phase of this competition we'll see is the returns. Like all those ugly Christmas sweaters that you didn't like or didn't fit.

    Those online sales are going to be shipped back. And a lot of the shipping companies like FedEx and UPS and maybe even the U.S. Postal Service are bracing themselves for what they expect to be a pretty heavy return system, particularly for online sales.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Right. And what about the shift that we're seeing in retailers heading towards mobile?

    Even small businesses are putting out apps now. I mean, is it making a big difference? Are people buying or shopping on their cell phones?

  • SARA GERMANO:

    Yes, and that's something that is part of that, you know, shift to online sales that even the brick-and-mortar retailers are trying to get better at.

    A lot of efforts have gone into building better mobile apps for shopping. You're seeing a lot of web rooming and showrooming, sort of the buzzwords we have been hearing over the past few months and years.

    People trying to be savvier shoppers, knowing the prices of whatever it is they want to buy, knowing where they can get it online or in stores.

    And you're also seeing a bit of a decrease in impulse spending, too.

    Consumers are — because of all these efforts and the retailers trying to get better at offering the best prices, the best education, the best apps, you know, customers are going to be smarter.

    And they're not as likely to buy off the cuff because they're equipped with so much more information.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right. Sara Germano of the Wall Street Journal, thanks so much.

  • SARA GERMANO:

    Thank you.

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