There could be fewer presents under the tree this year. And your stocking may contain nothing but batteries and headphones. It's not that we're...

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NEW YORK — There could be fewer presents under the tree this year. And your stocking may contain nothing but batteries and headphones.

It’s not that we’re in for another Great Depression. After all, the average shopper is planning to spend $800 on holiday merchandise (a little more than last year), according to the National Retail Federation.

But since one or two of this year’s big-ticket items could account for that entire figure, some marketing experts think families will be buying fewer gifts. Consider these holiday-season must-haves:

• An Apple iPod MP3 player ($350 for the video-playing model with 80 gigabytes of storage.)

• A Sony PlayStation 3 ($500 to $600 retail, but sellers have asked for $2,000 in online auctions).

“I surveyed my students, and the top things they were asking for were expensive things, a Sony Play Station 3, Xbox360,” says David Allan, who teaches marketing at Saint Joseph’s University. “They thought they would get less gifts and each one would cost more. So that leads me to believe the amount of gifts each person will get this year will be down because each one is costing so much more.”

Back in the day

Keep it under control

How can we make sure we don’t go overboard this holiday season?

The experts offer these tips.

• Make a budget and stick to it.

• Write down everyone you are going to buy something for, assign dollar amounts and don’t go over. Don’t go shopping without that list.

• Compare prices online or at other stores.

• Don’t give presents out of obligation. Give because you want to.

Sure, we had our big presents growing up: a Cabbage Patch doll or a Walkman tape player. But those items were less likely to consume a significant chunk of a family’s holiday budget.

“Now there are two or three things we want and they all cost a lot of money,” says Allan. “There is a movement towards electronics more than ever before. We are all upgrading to plasmas, analog digital phones, music players that not only play music but play videos. In the old days, you just wanted Elmo. Kids today want the Elmo and they want iPods too.”

Gareth Barkin, an anthropology professor at Centre College in Danville, K.Y., says a smaller percentage of people purchased the first-generation Nintendo in 1986 ($340 in today’s dollars) compared with the number of people who have iPods. The game systems were more of a novelty item than a living-room essential, he says.

“What used to be disposable gadgets for the geek crowd are now increasingly cool and mainstream,” he says.

Frank Jones, director of retail consulting at AlixPartners, says that when it comes to gift-giving, people are more concerned with quality than quantity. They don’t want to purchase things that are going to end up in the back of someone’s closet.

“People are into quality now, making their dollar stretch, getting items that are good and will last a long time and benefit their lifestyle,” he says.

Of course, not everyone believes more expensive gifts means fewer packages. Bettye Banks, senior vice president of education for Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Dallas, says people are purchasing the PlayStation and the sweater because kids still want more than one present.

“I watch what goes on at the malls,” says Banks. “I still see people with bags and bags of products.”

Spend, spend, spend

So where are we getting all this money?

Yes, gas prices are down. Employment and personal income are higher than last year.

But considering the average household income is around $43,000, one marketing professor believes families are spending a significant chunk of their disposable income on gifts and making cuts elsewhere.

“If we take the average family and buy one PlayStation 3 for a child, that’s a sizable portion of what the family has in terms of discretionary income,” said Eugene Fram, a marketing professor from Rochester Institute of Technology. “They would have to cut somewhere. One way is to say, ‘OK, it’s $600 but this will be your major present this season and for the rest of the year.’ “