Mary Hanna tries on hiking boots with help from Summit Hut footwear fitting specialist Kathy Simko. Lots of people are shopping in person, online and through catalogs this year, making sure they've done their research, found the right product and the best price.

You're going to spend more this holiday season, you'll probably shop both at stores and online - possibly with a smartphone or tablet computer - and while you're at it, you might buy something for yourself.

On the other hand, you won't spend much more than last year, you expect more than just good prices and you still are leaning toward practical gifts.

Those are just some of the findings of the National Retail Federation's 2011 holiday shopping survey.

This year, the Retail Federation expects holiday sales to grow a modest 2.8 percent to about $466 billion, as shoppers focus on prices and retailers offer strong promotions even earlier.

The holidays are the most important time of the year for many retailers.

Consumer spending accounts for about two-thirds of economic activity in the U.S., and the nearly half-a-trillion dollars people spend during the holiday season represents an estimated 19 percent of annual retail sales - and up to 40 percent for some retailers, the Retail Federation says.

Here's a look at the top 10 holiday trends as seen by the national retailers' group:

1. Slow but steady

The federation notes that its estimate of 2.8 percent sales growth this year is higher than the 10-year average, but nowhere near the 5.2 percent gain last year (after two years of declines).

Though the retail group found consumer sentiment "eerily similar" to the 2008 holiday season - which came on the heels of the Wall Street meltdown - retailers and shoppers have been adjusting.

In Arizona, recent retail sales figures showed improvement ahead of the critical holiday season.

Retail sales in the state rose 8.8 percent in September 2011 compared with the same month in 2010, following year-over-year gains of 8.6 percent in August and 7.5 percent increase in July, according to the Arizona Department of Revenue.

"I think it means good things - the holiday season will definitely turn out better than last year, because what we're seeing in the last few months is the willingness to spend money," said Marshall Vest, director of the Economic and Business Research Center at the University of Arizona's Eller College of Management.

2. The multichannel shopper

It's not the guy gawking at TVs in the electronics department. In retail jargon, a "multichannel" shopper is someone who buys through more than one sales channel, such as in stores and on the Web (or by catalog or mail).

The Retail Federation's holiday survey found that the average person plans to do 36 percent of their holiday shopping online - including researching products but not necessarily buying online. That's up from 33 percent last year and the highest on record.

Multiple-channel holiday shoppers are expected to spend 22 percent more this year than people who only shop in a store, the retail group found.

Dana Davis, president of Tucson-based Summit Hut, said she sees such multichannel shoppers daily. The company has two local stores and also sells online.

"We do see quite a lot of people truly mixing the two, doing both online and bricks-and-mortar shopping, and accessing the Internet via the phone, and doing a lot more online shopping or comparative shopping that way," said Davis, who co-owns Summit Hut with her husband, Jeremy.

3. Expecting more

Today's consumer has high expectations - they already assume retailers will be offering low prices or strong promotions, and they want more. Such a "price plus" shopping mentality includes price with other elements like quality, convenience and service, the Retail Federation says.

In the survey, people were more inclined to say those non-price elements are important factors in their decision on where to purchase, possibly because they already assume low prices are a given, the group said.

"I feel people do want quality and quality service, and I feel there is a little bit of moving back in that direction instead of just price, price, price," Summit Hut's Dana Davis said, adding that experienced staffers can educate customers about things like proper fit and the latest technologies.

4. Shrinking stock

Saddled with excess inventory after a disastrous 2008 holiday season, retailers pulled way back - causing some shortages of popular products.

Store inventory levels are still "very lean" this year, the federation said, which could affect the availability of top-selling products. But retailers have done a good job streamlining their supply chains to ensure more products get to areas with the highest potential regional demand.

Planning inventory levels is tricky amid the current economic uncertainty, but Autumn Ruhe, owner of Mildred & Dildred toy store at Tucson's La Encantada, said this year she's stocked up on traditional toys, like blocks and train sets, as well as expected hot sellers like Playmobil's new secret-agent play set and a cool magnetic pen set.

"We did a lot more of going deep into what we think are the most popular items, instead of just winging it," Ruhe said, adding that even though she ordered earlier, some of her suppliers are already out of stock on some items.

5. You'd better shop around

Your mama told you, and you're doing it.

During periods of consumer uncertainty, people dedicate themselves "maniacally" to finding the best deal - and they shop all over the place, the federation says.

Its survey found that a majority of shoppers will visit discount retailers this holiday season. But they'll also be shopping at department stores, clothing stores, electronics stores, craft stores and grocery stores.

In fact, nearly every store category is seeing a projected increase in traffic.

Locally owned stores may be higher on some shoppers' itineraries, as a result of shop-local promotions.

"I've noticed kind of a nice trend in the last couple of weeks, of people coming in saying, 'I wanted to shop local,' " Mildred & Dildred's Ruhe said. "And I've never heard that before."

6. Self-gifters

Six in 10 holiday shoppers have set aside money to make additional "non-gift" purchases for themselves this season, the survey found. The average person will spend $130 on these purchases, an all-time high and a 16 percent jump from last year.

The reason? The retailers' group says its members have done a good job of telling consumers that the holidays offer the best deals, and consumers are no dummies - they often delay purchases to wait for the best prices.

7. Everyday appropriate

Tighter holiday budgets in the past few years have prompted more shoppers to focus on practical, necessity gift purchases.

Things seem to be loosening up this year, but they're still more likely to buy things that are appropriate to wear or use on a regular basis.

Summit Hut's Davis said she's seen that trend as well.

"They're buying clothing they can wear every day, and then also wear for hiking or travel, rather then the super-technical pants they would wear only for hiking and not on a daily basis," she said.

Davis noted that many people are willing to spend top dollar for jackets made of the latest generation of waterproof, breathable textiles - which also score high for practicality because they tend to be more wearable.

8. Early birds or night owls?

Black Friday door-buster sales are back again in force, and some retailers are barely waiting for the Thanksgiving dishes to be cleared.

More stores are offering early Black Friday deals, and some are opening at midnight.

9. Free shipping isn't free, but it sells

Shoppers have come to expect free shipping, like they expect low prices.

And retailers are listening. According to Shop.org, a record 92.5 percent of online retailers will offer free shipping this holiday season; 56 percent say their budgets for free shipping are higher this holiday season than last, and one-third say free shipping offers will start earlier in the season.

Most free-shipping offers come with conditions like a required minimum purchase or the exclusion of some items.

10. The smartphone factor

Half of Americans with smartphones will use their devices for holiday shopping this year, according to the retail federation's survey. They'll use them mainly to research products or compare prices but also to find information like store hours and locations.

Consumers will also use phones while shopping in stores to read reviews or redeem coupons - while a smaller number (16 percent) will actually use their phone to make purchases.

According to the survey, 70 percent of tablet owners will use their devices for holiday shopping this year, and they are twice as likely as smartphone users to use their devices to make purchases.

Laying into layaway

Layaway is back, with heavy emphasis on such pay-as-you-go plans by major retailers including Walmart, Sears, Best Buy, Toys "R" Us and TJ Maxx.

Under a layaway plan, a retailer holds an item in exchange for partial, incremental payments and usually, a special fee. The customer gets the item when it is paid off; if they can't pay up, the retailer keeps the item and the fee.

Such plans are intended to help people pay for major purchases, and may seem like a good thing for many of today's cash-strapped consumers.

But the Better Business Bureau warns shoppers to read layaway terms carefully, citing recent complaints over issues like refunds and delays in getting paid-up items.

And some consumer advocates say some layaway plans can be a bad deal, considering that layaway fees can equal an annual interest rate of 40 to 100 percent.

Retailers say layaway plans can't be compared to credit, and fees go mainly to cover administrative and storage costs.

Of course, layaway is one way of making sure that hot gift you've picked out isn't sold out before you can afford to buy it. Consumer advocates say it still may be a better deal to put an item on a credit card and quickly pay it off to avoid interest charges.

David Wichner

Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at dwichner@azstarnet.com or 573-4181.