Here at gap intelligence, we track retail day in and day out.  Part of my job as the TV analyst is to visit a range of stores every week to check out the selection, the prices, and the displays.  I also enjoy listening to how well the salespeople at various stores know their products, and find out how other people shop for TVs.  This holiday season, the top features being batted around the TV world are Smart features and 3D.  But we’ve also been hearing a lot about other things that influence consumers’ decisions, such as increases in average screen size, prices, and brand recognition.

So what exactly are consumers looking for this holiday season?  I decided to conduct highly unscientific research and ask those people who roam the sales floors day after day, helping customers purchase the glowing box that Americans will stare at for an average of almost five hours each day: the sales guys.

I approached sales people at every store I visited, from the suited-up Magnolia reps in Best Buy, to the clerks at Walmart.  I asked them questions like, “What’s popular right now?  What are customers asking for when they come in?  What products are flying off the shelves, and why?”  Unequivocally, the first thing everyone said was, “BIG”.  Customers want larger screens, and they want them NOW.  “Big, big, big.  People want the biggest TV they can get for the least amount of money,” said a Kmart associate.  That sentiment was echoed everywhere I went.

The average TV screen size has been increasing for years.  In 2002, viewers were watching TV on a 34-inch screen and by 2011 it had grown to be 38-inches.  By next year, the average screen size in the U.S. will be over 40-inches, and it just keeps getting bigger.  Over the course of my two week study, I heard the same sentiment from countless shoppers: “Yeah, that 42-inch TV’s OK.  But over here I can get a 55-inch TV for the same price!”  In fact, at all but one of the stores I visited, the sales team told me that the size customers were requesting most often was at least 50-inches.  While the average screen size of all TVs in stock across retail has held steady at 44” for the past six months, the number of placements of TVs sized 50-inches and above has increased over the same amount of time from 819 to 1,242 placements.

Aside from the universal appeal of large screens, each store had a different take on what was popular this season.

At Best Buy, the sales team mentioned that LED is a popular request, as are Samsung TVs.  Gamers prefer plasma televisions because of the faster refresh rate.  Many customers come looking for Smart TVs, but are not interested in 3D.  The customers report that they buy the feature because it comes on many of the large-sized TVs that they want to purchase.

Within Best Buy, the Magnolia store reps reported that their customers are generally looking for TVs sized 55-inches and above.  Two plasma models from Panasonic seem to be the most popular sellers.  The TC-P55GT50 ($2,199) and the TC-P65VT50 ($3,699) are the models that walk out the door most frequently.

Costco seems to be packed with TV shoppers at this time of year, and the sales people didn’t have much time to stop and chat outside of “Big.  Like, 55-inches and up big”.  Customers were definitely gravitating towards the larger displays, and several had big TVs in their shopping carts, ready to go.

At Fry’s Electronics, the sales staff identified Smart functions as a hot feature.  Some people are looking for 3D, but they’re mostly interested in Smart TVs sized 50- to 55-inches.  The sales staff also mentioned that people seem to be more interested in big name brands, even if lesser-known brands are also less expensive.

Kmart reported the opposite experience; customers want big and cheap.  The RCA 50LB45RQ ($599) is a big seller for the store this season, and the new 52-inch RCA LED52B45RQ ($599) is likely to be popular as well.

Over at Sam’s Club, “the bigger, the better” was the phrase I heard most often.  Customers are coming in the door looking for 50- to 60-inch televisions from Vizio, Samsung, and Sony.  They also want Smart TVs to eliminate the extra equipment and remotes that come from set-top boxes.  The Vizio E502AR ($648) is a popular product at the moment.

Sears had a very quick answer: big, Smart TVs, LED, and Samsung were the most frequently-requested features.  While I was there, the sales associate tried to convince a couple that they could save some money on their large-screen TV by streaming videos through their Xbox 360, but the customers were insistent on buying a Smart TV.  “All-in-one, man”, said the shopper, “I don’t want to have to deal with extra stuff, you know?”

Walmart’s customers aimed a little lower than at other stores.  The sales clerk I spoke with said most customers come in looking for 40- to 43-inch TVs, even though the chain sells TVs as large as 60- to 70-inches.  Shoppers like Smart TVs for the apps, and the kids like 3D even if their parents don’t care about the feature.  Energy-efficient LED-lit TVs are also a frequent request.

So, what are TV shoppers looking for this year?  Overwhelmingly, the answer is BIG, Smart TVs for a good price.  There are many options out there, and many good bargains to be had.  Here’s to a successful holiday season for vendors and resellers alike.