Many believe that the worst is behind us but a key economic indicator is still a few short months away. Will Santa deliver strong retail sales this holiday season or will the holidays serve as a reminder that times are still tough for consumers?

According to the RetailMeNot’s Second Annual Benchmark Survey on Consumer Coupon Behavior conducted by HarrisInteractive, Holiday Shopping 2009 will look a lot like Holiday Shopping 2008.

4% of the consumers surveyed indicate that they’ll spend more this holiday season, down from 5% in 2008. 45% indicate that they’ll spend less, the same number as last year. And those in between, who plan to spend about the same amount, equaled 45%, up from 43% in 2008.

If accurate, it’s the quintessential glass half empty/half full situation: last year’s retail sales were not good, yet for retailers who have spent the year worried about another precipitous drop in consumer spending during the holidays, another 2008 might be tolerable.

The good news: there’s opportunity to influence consumers with coupons. According to RetailMeNot and HarrisInteractive, coupons have only grown in popularity over the past year as consumers looked to save money anywhere they could. Nearly one-third of consumers surveyed report that they’ll make a purchase at a different store or delay a purchase based on coupon availability. Coupons are most popular amongst the educated and employed, markets that retailers have good reason to court.

Of course, it should be noted that RetailMeNot is an online coupon search engine so the findings of the Second Annual Benchmark Survey on Consumer Coupon Behavior aren’t exactly surprising. More than half of the consumers surveyed aren’t using online coupons. But that doesn’t mean that the overall suggestion that retailers should be paying attention to online coupons is invalid. Indeed, as eMarketer points out, another survey conducted by market research firm Mintel found that over half of the affluent online consumers (those with household incomes $100,000 and up) it surveyed in June used online coupons.

The lesson for retailers: no matter what happens this holiday season, after what consumers have been through in the past year, chances are that coupons can’t hurt.

Photo credit: In Veritas Lux via Flickr.