Commentary

U.S. Consumers Anticipate 'Muted' Holidays

If brands are counting on festive holidays in 2020, they may need to rethink those expectations. 

The latest GfK Consumer Pulse research shows that consumers’ plans for the winter holidays are “muted” at best and don’t include much air travel.

The just-released study is based on a representative sample of 999 U.S. consumers (ages 16 to 65) conducted from Sept. 11  to 16.

It shows that slightly over one-third (35%) of all U.S. consumers say they will travel outside their communities to celebrate the winter holidays. Of those who are planning trips, 57% will be using their personal cars, while 35% will take a plane.

TSA airport checkpoint traffic continues to track less on average about 27% of last year's numbers. The TSA logged 812,214 travelers on Sept. 18 compared to 2,571,924 on the same day in 2019.

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Over half (56%) of Americans anticipate keeping their holiday celebrations small, feeling “somewhat” or “very comfortable” with attending or hosting a holiday gathering of five people or less. On the flip side, 24% say they would be “somewhat” or “very uncomfortable” going to a large holiday gathering of 20 people or more. 

Although the pandemic continues to put a damper on socializing and spending, brands can still meet consumers halfway by keeping a close eye on their concerns and needs, said Stacy Bereck, managing director of marketing consumer Insights at GfK. 

Products and messaging that speak to a desire for comfort and the things consumers require for their largely home-focused celebrations will stand a stronger chance of success today, Bereck says.

“The unpredictability of the virus means that consumers today want flexibility -- the ability to cancel or change plans as situations evolve,” Bereck tells Marketing Daily. “They want to find trips that allow for free cancellations, and many people also are considering travel insurance.”

The research shows that only 13% of consumers have made winter trip arrangements that they expect to stick with, while 25% have made a plan that they may change or cancel altogether.

As for gift purchase, GfK also found that 44% of U.S. consumers expect to buy exclusively online this holiday season, while only 17% say they will shop solely in brick-and-mortar outlets. That’s bad news for shopping mall Santas, who are likely to see far less traffic. 

Almost half (45%) report that they will buy items online and have them delivered at home, while 37% say they will purchase holiday items in stores. One-quarter (25%) plan to use online ordering with in-store delivery, and 19% will take advantage of curbside pickup.

Here’s one surprising statistic: Compared to young adults (ages 26 to 35), older consumers (ages 51 to 65) are twice as likely to say that they will shop in stores -- 57% vs. 25%. Considering that older adults are more likely to have a less favorable outcome if they contract COVID-19, this number is disturbing. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a person’s risk of getting severely ill from COVID-19 increases as you get older. In fact, 8 out of 10 COVID-19-related deaths reported in the United States have been among adults aged 65 years and older.

On a positive note, the two age groups were nearly identical in embracing online ordering with at-home delivery, with 48% of older consumers and 45% of young adults reporting that they would use this option.

A particularly disturbing finding for retailers overall: In a potential sign of this year’s economic troubles, 19% of U.S. consumers reported that they simply “will not be shopping” for the holidays. 

The no-shopping level among people with no children was nearly one-third (30%), but just 6% among those with at least one child under age 18.

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