Wendy Wiinanen walked through Edina's Galleria mall last week with shopping bags in each hand and her head held high.
"I'm doing a little less shopping this year than last, but not that drastic," said Wiinanen, 35, of Eden Prairie. "I'm aware of how fragile things are, but I've still got a job ... and I have savings."
Retail sales have fallen for five straight months as job losses grow and investments dwindle. But many middle-class consumers such as Wiinanen aren't bowing out for the season. With steady jobs and manageable credit card payments, they're buying gifts, cashing in on great deals and not feeling guilty about it.
"As long as I'm not overextending myself, I'm not nervous or scared," Wiinanen said. "I've worked really hard not to have any debt."
It's difficult to know how many consumers fall into this relatively carefree group, and no one expects them to save Christmas for retailers, who expect the worst holiday season in decades.
Yet a December survey by BIGresearch found that while 50 percent of shoppers said they intended to spend less this year, nearly 46 percent said they'd spend the same or more.
As merchants make their final four-day pitch before Christmas -- for what are expected to be some of the heaviest shopping days of the season -- deals have never been better for shoppers who have disposable income. Markdowns already are as high as 70 percent at some stores.
"If you have a job and good credit, this is a great time to buy," said Akshay Rao, director of the Institute for Research in Marketing at the University of Minnesota. "You're exactly the kind of person retailers are looking for. It's pointless, if I'm a retailer, to sell to someone who doesn't have a job and is trying to max out their 17 credit cards just to get through the holidays."
In this economy, Rao said, consumers are either in trouble or they're not. Those who aren't in trouble are of three minds. Some continue to spend freely. Others are circumspect and are cutting back. A third group plans to spend the same amount, but will spend it differently -- donating some of the money once spent on gifts to charity, for instance.
"I suspect there is a mixture of self control people are employing," Rao said. "'I'm OK, but other people are suffering.' It changes consumption behavior, but it doesn't necessarily eliminate it."
Grandparents Tom and Mary Winters of St. Paul confessed that their resolve to stick to a tighter budget this year melted when Mary scored a hard-to-find consumer electronics item for one of their nine grandsons.
"We were scaling back until about two days ago," Mary, 68, said with a laugh. "Even if you say you're not going to go out and do all this shopping, here we are."
"It doesn't work," agreed Tom, 70.
Mary, a real estate agent, said she closed deals on a few properties and that made it easier to splurge.
"The other thing that influenced me to do it is that the parents are having a hard time this year," she said. "If we can do a little something as grandparents, especially for the older teenagers, this is the only time we can go out and do things we want to do for them."
Surveys by America's Research Group show that 40 percent of those who haven't been brought to their knees by the recession feel guilty when they see others who are forced to cut back. But they're tempering those feelings by being practical and "shopping-list driven."
"They're the ones who went to Sears and bought a washer-dryer -- even though they didn't need one at the moment but will sometime this year -- because the deals were so good," said Britt Beemer, the group's founder and CEO.
Deep discounts called out to Bonnie Nelson, 55, of Scandia, too. She was in St. Paul with her sister shopping for toys before heading to the Bibelot for last-minute gifts for grown-ups.
"How do you not shop?" she said. "Have you seen those sales? All those places on the Internet that are shipping for free? So, yeah, I've spent as much as I normally do."
For consumers who have lived modestly for years, the current downturn hasn't caused a sea change.
"Our funds have taken a hit in the stock market, but in terms of our everyday life, things haven't changed too much for us," said Rob Slesak, 32, as he explored the aisles at the Creative Kidstuff on St. Paul's Grand Avenue last week with his wife, Ann Marie, and daughter, Maya, 1.
Slesak recently moved to St. Paul from Oregon. The couple are holding off buying a house and trying to build up savings.
But Santa won't be scrimping.
"We'll stick with what's important," Slesak said, with a wink toward Maya. "We all know kids love presents at Christmas."
Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335