How Will COVID-19 Impact Holiday Shopping?

A woman in a holiday sweater shopping online

At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, most people hoped that things would be back to normal by the end of the year. Unfortunately, now it seems certain we’ll have to wait until well into 2021 for things to settle down again. The virus has impacted almost every aspect of life over the past seven months and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Particularly, the holiday season will be unique and unprecedented because of the ongoing pandemic.

Holiday parties will look different, for starters. The CDC has already released recommendations for Halloween including small gatherings and cautious trick or treating. As we move toward Black Friday, it’s likely that holiday shopping will be turned upside down as well. Many companies are already prepping for increased online demand and hiring tons of seasonal workers as a result.

So how will holiday shopping trends shift this year? Emerging consumer data shows that travel and spending could trend downward this year.

How Our Shopping Habits are Changing

According to data from Fluent Pulse, in a typical year, about 65 percent of shoppers handle their gift lists between September and August. This year, however, more than half of shoppers said they planned to shop earlier than usual to avoid shipping delays. While 21 percent of consumers said they planned to get their shopping done before Thanksgiving, more than 40 percent said they still didn’t have a plan.

Moreover, a survey from Morning Consult shows that in addition to shopping uncertainty, it’s likely Americans will be shopping less in general. Thirty-nine percent of Americans said they planned to spend less on gifts this year than in other years, compared to just 12 percent who said they’d spend more. Roughly two-thirds of adults also indicated they’d be spending less on drinks, food, and alcohol than usual this year.

These results shouldn’t be surprising. Millions of Americans remain out of work, and many more are behind on bills because of the pandemic. However, these insights are giving us a closer look as to how specific consumer groups have been impacted financially. For instance, both the Fluent Pulse and Morning Consult data indicate that the younger generations are the least concerned with spending money on gifts.

We can also see the direct impact of coronavirus on how habits have changed. Last year, Fluent Pulse found that 51 percent of shoppers prefer to shop in-person. This year, however, only a quarter of shoppers plan to primarily hit physical stores, while 75 percent say they’ll shop at least partly online.

Other Trends and Findings

As expected, this shift should be beneficial for online retailers. Amazon should continue to lead the pack. Nearly half of respondents to the Fluent survey said they planned to shop with the industry leader. Comparatively, just 27 percent planned to shop with Walmart and only 4 percent with Target.

Like consumers, brands and retailers are being forced to adapt to a new landscape as well. Morning Consult found that the most compelling ads this year will include company safety measures. When asked to indicate what kind of ad would make them more likely to make a purchase, 35 percent of consumers said one that showed the steps the company is taking to protect consumers from COVID-19. A majority of consumers are worried about social distancing in stores, so companies that can follow through may earn more business.

The Bottom Line

We know things will be different this year. Surveys like these start to shed light on exactly how things will change and can help us figure out specifically why things are shifting. In 2020, it seems likely that the pandemic will drive spending on holiday shopping down while increasing concerns about safety.

Overall, it will be interesting to see how companies and consumers alike adjust to the new realities of holiday shopping.