Holiday Shopping First Look: While Some Consumers Are Shopping Earlier, Most Haven’t Started

Fewer and smaller in-person celebrations mean more shipped gifts, putting pressure on an already-stressed supply chain, notes retail and e-commerce analyst Claire Tassin
Getty Images / Morning Consult artwork by Tadiana Martinez
October 08, 2021 at 12:01 am UTC

The pandemic is affecting this year’s holiday shopping season, but in different ways. Supply chain concerns are pushing some consumers to get a head start on their holiday shopping, but thanks to smaller planned gatherings and increased comfort with online shopping due to the pandemic, more will turn online to shop and will be more likely to rely on delivery services to get gifts to loved ones. Retailers should brace for a surge of online orders and offer incentives for store pickups over home delivery.

The holiday shopping season is upon us, and while COVID-19’s grip on consumer comfort looks considerably different from last year, it’s clear this year will still be tainted by the lasting effects of the pandemic. 

That’s according to new data pulled from Morning Consult’s new holiday tracker, which will deliver weekly data and insights as consumers’ plans coalesce and shift with changing pandemic conditions. Here’s what you need to know.

As the supply chain crisis continues to draw headlines, many consumers are nudging up their shopping plans. But most haven’t started looking

Given the supply chain issues that many Americans are already experiencing, and with more difficulties expected, retailers are trying to lure consumers now with early holiday promotions -- a tactic that drew mixed results in 2020.

The good news is that some respondents are -- slightly -- moving up their shopping plans from late to early November, helping those retailers looking to avoid customers’ frustration with inevitable shipping delays.

But most (57 percent) haven’t started their holiday shopping -- nearly identical to the share who said the same last year at this time.

Consumers Will Start Holiday Shopping in Earnest in Early November

Respondents who have not yet begun their holiday shopping were asked when they plan to start
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Poll conducted from September 18 - 20, 2020, and September 24 - 26, 2021, among 2,200 U.S. adults, with a margin of error of +/- 2%.

Americans are planning fewer, smaller holiday celebrations than usual

At this point in the holiday season, most do not plan to go fully virtual in their family celebrations, but many are planning to go smaller: According to Morning Consult’s latest holiday data, 47 percent of Americans are changing their holiday plans because of the pandemic, a far more optimistic number than the 65 percent who said the same this time last year. But most of the public plans to at least cut back on large gatherings, with 64 percent saying they plan to limit their attendance at events and celebrations. 

Brands should be cognizant of smaller gathering sizes and prioritize images and messaging that reflect more intimate gatherings with close family and friends.

Pandemic Concerns Lead Consumers to Smaller Get Togethers

Respondents were asked how their holiday traditions might change this year
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Polls conducted October 1-2, 2020, and October1 -3, 2021, among 2,200 U.S. adults, with margins of error of +/- 2%.

More will go online for holiday gifts, but this year it’s more for convenience than safety 

The relative dearth of large gatherings we can expect to see this holiday season could further inflame supply-chain issues: 48 percent of consumers plan to rely more on those services to exchange gifts than they have in years past, adding to already stressed networks.

As retailers attempt to hire seasonal staff in this tight labor market, a big part of their planning is built on assumptions about where consumers will do their shopping.

Consumers are Planning for Another Pandemic Adjusted Holiday Season

Respondents were asked why they plan to shop more online than in stores this year
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Polls conducted September 18-20, 2020, and September 24-26, 2021, among 2,200 U.S. adults, with margins of error of +/- 2%.

Last year, 46 percent of consumers who shifted their holiday shopping online indicated that they did so due to pandemic safety concerns. This year, the numbers are similar, but the rationale is different: A plurality (42 percent) still plan to do the majority of their shopping online, but for the bulk of those consumers, it’s for the sake of convenience -- not safety.

The pandemic pushed many shoppers to take advantage of long-established online ordering and store pickup options, behavior that will turn into habit as health and safety concerns diminish. These features will become table-stakes offerings, pushing retailers to further differentiate on their ability to reduce friction for consumers. 

Claire Tassin is a retail and e-commerce analyst. She conducts research on shifting consumer behaviors and expectations, as well as trends relevant to marketing leaders in the retail sector.
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