Consumer spending this holiday season has been comparable to last year’s, but banks are noticing a slight shift from debit to credit usage despite efforts to make debit card spending more attractive.

New England households are also expected to be the biggest spenders this year, according to Natick, Mass.-based research group The Conference Board.

Last Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, Waterbury-based Webster Bank noticed a slight downturn in spending from the year before. But largely because of merchant promotions that encouraged consumers to start buying gifts earlier this year, the weeks leading up to what is historically the biggest shopping day of the year saw more spending than last year.

“I think the merchants are really trying to level out the year,” said John Weeks of Webster Bank. “From a merchant point of view, [earlier promotions] help them bring in the money quicker.”

Companies like L.L. Bean began offering free shipping several months ago, and other retailers had similar promotions encouraging consumers to buy early. It worked, Weeks said.

“They [holiday shoppers] didn’t necessarily wait [until last Friday to buy gifts],” he said.

Merchants likely offered the early promotions to combat flat sales of cold-weather items, like hats and gloves, which have not flown off the shelves due to mild weather. The weather also has a lot to do with projections for the rest of the holiday season, according to Patrice Duker, a spokeswoman for the International Council of Shopping Centers. Cold weather is good for the sales of seasonal items like hats, but if a snowstorm hits on a weekend near Christmas, it could push consumers to find alternatives, like shopping online.

Despite an overall switch from debit cards to credit cards for purchasing more costly holiday gifts, Webster Bank customers have been using their debit cards online a great deal this holiday season, according to Weeks.

Visa showed a 14 percent swing from debit to credit use last weekend compared to the same weekend last year, but a rewards program that allows debit card users to earn points for each dollar spent kept Webster customers using them, Weeks said.

“We know there’s going to be a swing [from debit to credit] on some [high-priced] ticket levels,” he said. “[But] a lot of our customers are very loyal to the debit card.”

Online shopping will be more popular than it was last year, according to a survey conducted by The Conference Board.

The survey showed that about 34 percent of all consumers will buy holiday gifts on the Internet, up from 33 percent a year ago. Books are the most popular gift to buy online, with nearly 45 percent of respondents saying they will buy books as gifts. Clothing and shoes rank next as online holiday buying choices, followed closely by toys.

Of the 33 percent who said they purchased holiday gifts last year on the Internet, 94 percent said they were satisfied with their online buying experience.

Overall, the International Council of Shopping Centers predicts that holiday sales in November and December will rise by between 3 percent and 3.5 percent compared with last year.

“If that holds true it will be a moderate retail season overall,” Duker said.

New England Spends

Retailers who can compete on price are likely to do well this season, she said, as will the extreme opposite side of the spectrum: merchants who sell luxury goods. The luxury market is trending toward a rise of 7 percent, Duker said.

In 2004, holiday sales in November and December posted a 2.3 percent gain compared with sales in 2003.

“The upcoming holiday season will fare reasonably well compared with past years and will be on par with the growth rate we have seen thus far in 2005,” said The International Council of Shopping Centers Chief Economist and Director of Research Michael P. Niemira in a prepared statement. “However, this year, holiday sales will be driven by price and promotional activities as consumers deal with higher gasoline prices and heating bills. Sales will be uneven from retailer to retailer and it is expected that those who compete on price will be the most successful.”

The Conference Board expects consumers to spend an average of $466 on gifts this year, compared to $476 spent last year, after a survey of holiday gift spending.

New Englanders plan to spend considerably more, according to the survey. Residents of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont intend to spend $568, according to the survey.

“Consumers appear to have less Christmas spirit heading into Thanksgiving this year than last year,” said Lynn Franco, director of The Conference Board Consumer Research Center, in a prepared statement. “This cautious attitude will have consumers shopping for bargains this season. Retailers will need to offer discounts and promotions to get shoppers into their stores.”

The survey showed the lowest holiday spending will be in the east south central section of the country, which encompasses Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi; and the west south central section, which is comprised of Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas, where households expect to spend $423. Both these regions were hard hit by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Slightly more than 32 percent of all households will spend $500 or more on holiday gifts, with 37 percent spending between $200 and $500 and the remaining 30 percent planning to spend less than $200.