Another Reason for a Lukewarm Holiday Season: Shoppers Are Bummed Out

Noble Horvath

With a coronavirus vaccine unlikely to arrive until next year, shopping mall foot traffic still down by 37%, and a gaggle of leading retailers mired in bankruptcy proceedings, few believed that the 2020 holiday season was going to look anything like last year. Even with fat cats like Amazon and […]

With a coronavirus vaccine unlikely to arrive until next year, shopping mall foot traffic still down by 37%, and a gaggle of leading retailers mired in bankruptcy proceedings, few believed that the 2020 holiday season was going to look anything like last year. Even with fat cats like Amazon and Walmart poised to welcome the anticipated flood of online orders, analysts are predicting a decidedly sober holiday.

A study by AlixPartners released Sept. 21, for instance, showed that nearly a quarter of Americans (23%) planned to spend less on holiday shopping this year than last, representing a deterioration of 7 percentage points compared to 2019. Overall, the firm found that overall holiday sales for 2020 (measured as sales between October and December) would inch up by an anemic 1% to 2.6% over last year.

The primary reasons for these shifts are already well known. Many customers are still wary of venturing back into brick-and-mortar stores, of course. The country has also officially been in recession since June 8, and economic downturns invariably reflect themselves in holiday spending. (Two years into the Great Recession of 2008, for example, 40% of consumers reported spending less on holiday gifts, according to a Marist poll.)

Now comes news of another possible reason why this holiday season likely won’t have many retailers making merry: Consumers, emotionally worn down from months of pandemic living, simply aren’t looking forward to the holidays.

This is among the notable findings of a survey of 1,000 U.S. consumers released today by Iterable. Questioned about their planned holiday spending, 63% of respondents said the pandemic has negatively affected their attitudes about holiday shopping itself.

What’s more, the reasons for those feelings appear to be emotional ones as opposed to purely financial, since many of the respondents are not in dire fiscal straights. Over half of the survey’s participants said they were still employed full time, and only 8% said they were unemployed as a result of the pandemic. And 58% of the respondents reported having household incomes of $50,000 or more.

The underlying emotional strain on consumers was further mirrored by another of the survey’s findings. Many shoppers are seeking a modicum of comfort and reassurance as they spend, with 41% saying they’re “much more likely” to buy a brand that they already have an emotional connection to. (Another 41% indicated they were “somewhat” more likely to do so, which makes feelings of familiarity a decisive factor in over 80% of purchases.)

Iterable’s findings are in step with those of more general studies released in recent weeks. These have suggested that, as the pandemic passes its half-year mark (the World Health Organization declared it official on March 11), its long-term effects are stretching well past the fiscal and epidemiological and into the murkier realm of the psychological.

According to a recent article in the medical journal Psychological Trauma, Google searches for “worry” and “anxiety” have increased markedly since the pandemic began. On Sept. 3, the journal Lancet Psychiatry reported that Covid-19 has resulted in a marked increase in feelings of instability and insecurity. And on Sept. 25, the American Psychological Association published the results of a study that found that Covid-19 has even disturbed our sleep: “The pandemic is affecting our dreams,” it said, “infusing more anxiety and negative emotions into dreams and spurring dreams about the virus itself.”

Cheerless as many consumers may be this holiday season, they’ll still muster the energy to look for gifts online. In Iterable’s survey, 67% of respondents said they would do all or most of their shopping via the web, with 35% saying they plan to use Amazon more than they did last year.

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