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Retailers will have to fend off cross-border sales from Black Friday and Cyber Monday while enticing customers.

Brian Bettencourt/The Globe and Mail

Holiday forecasts bring disappointing tidings for retailers heading into their crucial shopping period.

The latest holiday outlook survey, being released on Thursday, says 60 per cent of Canadians plan to spend only about the same on holiday purchases as they did last year. The Accenture survey found that consumers intend to spend an average of $685.35 on gifts, and crave U.S.-style bargains.

On a gloomier note, researcher Field Agent Canada found Canadians plan to shell out 7.2 per cent less on Christmas gifts, decorations and food compared with last year – an average of $885, it said this week.

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"People are planning to hunker down," said Jeff Doucette, general manager of Field Agent Canada.

Retailers are bracing for a difficult holiday period as a growing array of foreign competitors push incumbents to keep prices low – a boon for consumers but painful for merchants.

In response, retailers increasingly are offering Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals, which are direct imports from late-November U.S. discounting holiday events, to curb cross-border shopping.

"The market has changed and Canadian retailers need to be aggressive with offering the best deals of the season during Black Friday and Cyber Monday to keep and grow market share," said Robin Sahota, managing director of retail at consultancy Accenture in Canada.

Retailers already have grappled with cautious consumer spending this year. Moneris Solutions, the country's largest processor of debit and credit cards, is releasing a report on Thursday that shows it has recorded for the first time three consecutive quarters of flat consumer spending. It started reporting the spending in 2010.

In the critical fourth quarter "we expect the trend will continue," added Angela Brown, chief executive officer of Moneris, predicting flat spending in the holiday season.

Stefan Sjostrand, the new president of home furnishings specialist IKEA Canada, summed up the retail challenge in an interview this week: "We have a tough competitive landscape."

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The Accenture study found that most shoppers (57 per cent) will head to discount retailers as their top destination during the holiday season. Among the winners will be e-commerce players: A growing number of shoppers (34 per cent) plan to spend at least half of their holiday gift dollars online (compared with 26 per cent in 2013), it says.

And discounting events, such as Black Friday, a U.S. phenomenon that arrived in Canada several years ago, have become even more important, it found. Black Friday is the day after the U.S. Thanksgiving at the end of November, when U.S. retailers offer deep markdowns to kick off holiday shopping.

In Canada, retailers in the past have waited until Boxing Day to mark down prices heavily but now those discounts are shifting earlier in the season to Black Friday, hitting retailers' bottom lines.

"Black Friday is the new Boxing Day," the Accenture survey says. It found that 33 per cent of consumers expect to find the best deals on each of Black Friday and Boxing Day, a significant shift from last year when 44 per cent of consumers anticipated the best deals on Boxing Day and just 23 per cent expected them on Black Friday.

"As the popularity of the U.S. holiday discount shopping dates rise to unprecedented levels in Canada, retailers will be forced to slash prices to meet the changing expectations of consumers, especially millennials," Mr. Sahota said.

The silver lining is that fewer Canadians plan to shop south of the border on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the survey found. As retailers here offer more deals, they are giving holiday shoppers fewer reasons to flee across the border, Accenture executives said. A weaker Canadian dollar also helps keep consumers from cross-border shopping.

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