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Holiday Shopping Just Getting Started but Could Be Brisk

Holiday Shopping Just Getting Started but Could Be Brisk

Story Highlights

  • Americans predict spending $886 on Christmas gifts, up slightly from 2020
  • Most didn't start holiday shopping early this year
  • Shoppers far more likely to shop for gifts online than at stores

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A new Gallup poll finds Americans planning to spend an average $886 on Christmas gifts this season. That is slightly more than the amount they predicted a year ago at this time, as well as in 2019.

Line graph. Annual trend from 1999 to 2021 in Americans' estimate each November of how much money they will spend on Christmas gifts. Average dollar amount is $886 in 2021, up slightly from $852 in 2020. Amount has been trending upward since the low of $616 in 2008. Before that, from 1999 to 2007, it had ranged from $690 to $866.

The latest findings, from a Nov. 1-16 survey, are also up slightly from Gallup's October measure of consumers' 2021 holiday spending plans. At that time, Americans planned to spend an average $837 on gifts.

Gallup's trend is not inflation adjusted, so one reason for the increase since 2020 could be consumer awareness that prices are higher this year. Even with that caveat about inflation, Gallup analysis of Americans' November spending estimate suggests that U.S. retail sales this season are most likely to rise by between 3.7% and 5.3% compared with last year. That would exceed the average yearly increase in U.S. holiday retail spending of 3.5% seen since 2000.

  • Holiday sales rose 3.8% in 2020, according to the Census Bureau's Advance Monthly Retail Trade and Food Services Survey (MARTS) data on total food and retail sales excluding gas and automobiles. Thus, the 2021 holiday season is poised to be as good as last year for retailers, or slightly better.

  • Gallup's holiday spending forecast is based on a statistical model comparing consumers' November Christmas spending intentions for each year since 2000 to national retail sales data for the months of November and December, using MARTS.

Few Got an Early Start on Shopping

Despite many retailers urging consumers to avoid supply-chain delays and start their holiday shopping early this year, just 4% of Americans had finished their holiday shopping at the time of the Nov. 1-16 survey; another 33% said their shopping was underway. However, the solid majority, 61%, had not yet started.

  • Men are the greater procrastinators when it comes to buying holiday gifts, with 65% of men versus 57% of women saying they hadn't started. Few in either group said they were finished, but 41% of women versus 34% of men had at least gotten started.

  • Far fewer adults in low-income households (24% of those earning less than $40,000 annually) had started their shopping than was true for adults in middle-income (42%) or upper-income (47%) households.

  • About half of adults with children under 18 say they had started or finished their shopping (49%), well exceeding the 33% of adults without children. This explains why middle-aged adults were further along in the process than younger and older adults.

Online Shopping Prevails to the Detriment of Department, Discount Stores

The same survey updated a question previously asked between 1993 and 2017 about how Americans do their Christmas shopping.

Currently, 56% of Americans say they are "very likely" to do their Christmas shopping online. That is up eight percentage points from 48% in 2017 and 52 points from Gallup's initial 4% reading in 1998. While some of the recent increase could be a natural extension of the long-term increase in online shopping, it likely also reflects more people adopting the practice during the pandemic.

Line graph. Trend from 1993 to 2021 in the percentages of Americans saying they are "very likely" to use each of five different places to do their Christmas shopping. The percentage very likely to shop online has increased sharply from 4% in 1998 to 56% in 2021. At the same time, after peaking at 60% in 1998 and 1999, high likelihood of using department stores has declined to 24%. Use of discount stores has also declined and is now 29%. Use of specialty stories has declined less, with 18% currently very likely to use them, versus 24% in 1993 and 37% in 1998. Use of mail-order catalogs has been consistently lower over time, but dipping from a high of 17% in 1999 to 6% in 2021.

Consumers' stated likelihood of using each of four more traditional shopping methods confirms the dramatic shift toward online shopping that has taken place in the U.S. retail sector over the past quarter century.

  • In 1993, 51% of Americans said they were very likely to do their Christmas shopping at department stores, and an identical percentage said the same about discount stores. Today those figures are 24% and 29%, respectively.

  • Use of specialty stores -- defined as stores selling only one type of product, such as toys, clothing or jewelry -- has been relatively low throughout Gallup's trend, including 24% in 1993 and 18% today.

  • While down from 1993, preference for discount stores has been stable since 2017 even as intent to shop at department and specialty stores has declined.

  • Use of mail-order catalogs has been low for years, although today's 6% reading is the lowest yet, down from 9% in 2017.

The increased likelihood of using department and specialty stores in 1998 and 1999 may have been due to the improved economy at the time, giving consumers greater financial means and confidence to shop at higher-end stores.

The internet is a far less dominant method of Christmas shopping for consumers when one factors in those who say they are "somewhat likely" to use each form of shopping. A combined 76% are very or somewhat likely to shop online, versus 65% at department stores, 61% at discount stores and 51% at specialty stores. Intent to use mail-order catalogs is much lower, at 18%.

How Americans Are Likely to Purchase Holiday Gifts in 2021
How likely are you to use each of the following to do your Christmas shopping this year -- very likely, somewhat likely, not too likely or not at all likely?
Very likely Very/Somewhat likely
% %
Online/Internet 56 76
Department stores 24 65
Discount stores 29 61
Specialty stores^ 18 51
Mail-order catalogs 6 18
^ Full wording: "Specialty stores, such as stores that sell only toys, or only clothes or only jewelry, for example"
Gallup, Nov. 1-16, 2021

Bottom Line

A lot of holiday shopping has yet to be done between now and year's end, given that many Americans had not even started -- let alone finished -- as of early to mid-November.

Many factors, most notably inflation and the pandemic, could influence how much consumers spend on gifts this season and where they ultimately shop. But as of November, Americans intended to spend a fairly robust amount that should translate into solid holiday sales for the U.S. economy. While people are mostly inclined to turn to the internet to buy gifts, many have ignored warnings to start early, suggesting that the reality of delayed delivery times and product back orders could send last-minute shoppers into their local stores.

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