A Kindle, gentler holiday season

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Consumers still coveting latest and greatest electronic offerings

Electronic gadgets are always a big holiday favorite, but this year, retailers seem to be sticking to updating tried-and-true favorites, along with slashing prices, to entice consumers into their stores.

While Amazon’s Kindle, on the market for the past couple of holiday seasons, is by far the most popular item on the “must have” list, the iPod Touch, updated GPS navigation systems and new ways to download movies also make the list.

But the National Retail Federation has projected that holiday sales will drop 1 percent this year — far lower than the 3.4 percent drop of last year, but still enough to make retailers nervous about selling those LCD-screen televisions and digital photo albums.

U.S. consumers plan to spend an average of $682.74 this year — and they plan to spend it only where they get bargains.

“This holiday season will be a bit of a dance between retailers and shoppers, with each group feeling the other out to understand how things have changed and how they must adapt,” said NRF President and CEO Tracy Mullin.

The NRF cautions those last-minute shoppers not to delay. Because of the uncertainty, popular items — particularly electronics — will not stay on shelves long because many retailers cut back inventory levels to prevent unplanned markdowns at the end of the season.

In fact, traffic at the nation’s ports has scaled back to levels not seen in nearly seven years, Mullin said.

“Once the most popular items are gone, retailers won’t have anywhere to get them, so if there was even a holiday season to buy early, this is it,” Mullin said.

Even traditionally free-spending affluent consumers with incomes of more than $100,000 aren’t going to be spending as usual this holiday season. Pam Danzinger, president of Unity Marketing said that most affluent shoppers are going to spend either the same as last year — or less.

“This year’s shopper isn’t going to go for frivolous luxury items,” she said. “The mood among consumers is cautious, they don’t feel particularly festive this year,” she said. “The best gifts this year are going to be items that are practical, that make a contribution to the gift recipient’s life in order to make it safer, more comfortable, more meaningful.”

Personal electronics make that list — and that category has been a growth industry for affluent people. The NRF survey shows that 33.2 percent of gift-givers plan to buy electronics, in the top five of gift-giving choices.

So what are the popular electronic gadget choices this year?

1. Amazon’s Kindle made the top of nearly every list. Kindle wirelessly downloads books, magazines, newspapers and personal documents to a high-resolution 6-inch electronic ink display that looks and reads like real paper. It can store more than 15,000 books and magazines. And this week, Amazon announced Kindle for personal computers, which allows users to read the 360,000 Kindle books on their laptops or PCs.

2. Personal navigation devices. GPS devices offer the safety, convenience, affordability — and they are “cool and contemporary,” Danzinger said. The most popular GPS navigators are the Navigon 7200 T, Garmin Nuvi 880 and the Magellan Maestro 4370, according to CNET.com reviews.

3. LCD televisions. Despite the fact that people are cautious about the economy, these television screens are very popular. Ranging in size from 52 inches to pocket sized, LCD TV screens are a product that stores like Best Buy have been selling year round — despite the economy. Some online blogs call 2009 the “Christmas of the LCDs.”

4. Roku digital video player. This little device could end the DVD rental business. With this, people can download movies or television programs directly from Hulu or Netflix and play them on their televisions. No more waiting for the Netflix DVD to arrive in the mail.

5. iPod Touch. The iPod is a pocket-sized computer that Apple claims will do almost everything a regular-sized personal computer will do. With the iPod Touch, users can download movies, music, surf the Web, send e-mail and play video games.

6. Netbooks. These are yet another smaller, portable personal computer. Lacking an external disc drive, these light-weight, wireless computers allow users to surf the Web and create documents on the go. Most of them retail at $200, so they are affordable in today’s economic climate.