As the weather cools and the air turns crisp, US retailers are once again facing challenges for the holiday-shopping season. The past couple of years saw severe, systemic supply chain disruptions and high case rates for COVID-19. However, the landscape is more nebulous this time. Consumer demand has softened, while inventory levels are higher than they’ve been in years, and company earnings continue to face scrutiny from Wall Street as some profits decline.
Meanwhile, US consumers continue to send mixed signals. Their sentiment about the economy remains historically low, and they still have concerns about inflation. They’re looking for savings by trading down and seeking value where they can find it. But many of them have cash to spend—and they say they’re not just willing but eager to spend and splurge. People in the United States are more excited for the holidays than they’ve been in years.
With this divergent dynamic in mind, many retailers have kicked off the holiday-shopping season earlier than ever. Some retailers are doubling down on membership benefits to drive loyalty and increase their share of wallet. Others are announcing price match guarantees and widening return windows during the holidays to reach more consumers. Retailers are also making adjustments that are less visible to consumers: by using data and investing in automation to predict shopping preferences and manage inventory, or by hiring fewer seasonal employees in anticipation of slower growth.
This article presents findings from our latest Consumer Pulse Survey; they show that there are good reasons for US retailers to be optimistic. The following are the key discoveries:
- The holidays are back. After nearly three years of suppressed behavior resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, people are primed to go all out to celebrate for the holidays. In the survey, 55 percent of US respondents say they are excited about holiday shopping, and most people have the savings to spend.
- Holiday shopping has already begun. Concerns about ongoing inflation and product availability—along with retailers’ early planning this year—have encouraged US consumers to shop earlier than ever: 56 percent have already started shopping in October instead of waiting until later in the season.
- Consumers are looking for value. Given economic uncertainty, consumers are being more surgical about how they spend. Nearly half of US survey respondents say they would switch stores if they found a better price elsewhere.
This Consumer Pulse Survey was in the field from September 27 to September 29, 2022, and garnered responses from more than 1,000 consumers in the United States (sampled and weighted to match the general US population, ages 15 to 74). These insights build on the work we have undertaken since March 2020, when we began to regularly conduct consumer surveys and combine our research and analysis with third-party data on US spending to glean insights into how consumer sentiment has shifted since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Consumer-facing companies can capitalize on US consumers’ optimism and willingness to spend during the holiday season by focusing on providing value:
- Adapt to your consumer. Not all consumers are the same, and retailers can tailor their approaches to the people they want to reach. Higher-income consumers have more to spend and are more willing to splurge on discretionary items, whereas lower-income consumers are more likely to give holiday gifts that fill a need. Given people’s propensity to delay purchases, retailers should focus on inspiring consumers with the right items at the right price and at the right time.
- Set earlier, wider-reaching promotions. If retailers haven’t already done so, they should kick off the holiday-shopping season now with distinctive value, differentiated promotions, and personalized offerings. US consumers are shopping already and looking for value, so building on their enthusiasm early could lead to momentum. Leveraging excess inventory to trigger the holiday spirit now can have the added benefit of clearing store space for new arrivals after Black Friday in late November. Providing unique in-store offerings and services could reach more consumers now that foot traffic is back up.
- Allow for more purchasing flexibility. By offering convenience and accessibility to value, retailers can reach more consumers and garner more loyalty. That could include employing a price match guarantee or offering flexible fulfillment options, such as in-store pickup, expedited shipping toward the end of the holiday season, and temporarily widening the window for returns.
- Maintain a long-term pulse on trade-offs. Delivering value will help retailers win this holiday-shopping season. But for long-term health, companies should also constantly consider the trade-offs between the holiday frenzy and the longer-term potential impact of any changes on brand image and overall profitability. Understanding details on customer acquisition during the holidays and deploying customer-relationship-management tactics soon after the holidays can help retailers retain loyalty.