New Consumer Survey Sheds Light on Holiday and General Spending Habits and Return to Office as Pandemic Continues

BOSTON — Dec. 16, 2021 — A full 70% of U.S. consumers report they are adjusting their buying behavior this holiday season, driven by supply chain disruptions that may impact holiday gift availability, according to a new survey by global strategy consulting firm L.E.K. Consulting. Findings indicate that 86% of Americans are aware of those supply issues.

“Surveyed consumers are expecting to purchase a larger share of their gifts online this year. In 2019, 50%-60% of gifts were purchased in-store; this year, 50%-60% of all gift purchases are expected to be online, a 10-20 percentage point increase in just two years. While consumer responses may be higher than what we’ll see in reality, they clearly point to a strong inclination for online gift buying this holiday season,” said Manny Picciola, L.E.K. Managing Director and co-author of “The Great Reopening and Priority Reset: Consumer Insights,” a report based on a survey of 1,000 Americans in November 2021. Many comparisons in the report are between 2019 and 2021 behaviors to highlight the differences between pre-pandemic and current behaviors.

Americans who are shifting their holiday gift buying behaviors reported they were planning to order gifts earlier than usual, purchase fewer gifts, buy more gift cards instead of physical gifts and/or purchase more locally made products.

“Just over half of Americans expect to spend about the same amount of money on holiday gifts this year as they did in 2019, although about a third expect to spend less due to various reasons, such as having less money and the anticipation of seeing fewer friends and family. Interestingly, recent consumer spending data suggest that consumer sentiment may not be the best predictor of holiday sales: The Census Bureau and other secondary sources have reported a positive trend in monthly sales, with September’s retail sales up 14% over the same month last year and up around 25% over September 2019,” said Maria Steingoltz, L.E.K. Managing Director and report co-author.

“This disconnect between consumer sentiment and actual spend has been observed frequently this year — consumers are pessimistic about the economy, even though it is arguably doing well overall,” added Steingoltz.

One of the other factors affecting holiday spending is Americans’ perception of the severity of the pandemic, plus the extent to which they are aware of the pandemic’s playing a role in their daily decisions. According to the report, most Americans (88%) do not believe the pandemic is fully contained, but only 17% say they are very concerned about it and that it influences their day-to-day behavior significantly — down from 26% in July 2021.

“For the small percentage of Americans who believe the pandemic is fully contained, their spending behavior has largely returned to pre-pandemic levels, with some exceptions, such as dining out, out-of-home entertainment, and ride-sharing and ride-hailing, which remain slightly lower,” said Lauren DeVestern, L.E.K. Managing Director and report co-author. “But for the other 88%, spending continues to be impacted. That said, Americans do expect their spending to eventually return to pre-pandemic levels for most categories once the pandemic is contained.”

Among the other key findings from the L.E.K. survey and report:

  • In-person activities. While attendance at many in-person activities remains dampened, it is recovering and expected to rebound. Activities whose attendance has improved since the start of the pandemic but remains low compared to pre-pandemic include visiting friends and family, going to the spa, going to live events, and going to restaurants and bars. These activities should see a full rebound post-pandemic, but going to the gym is likely to remain slightly below pre-pandemic levels, especially given the proliferation of connected fitness and at-home workouts.
  • Return to work. Fifty-one percent of Americans who have traditionally office-based jobs report their employer currently has a full-time in-office policy, 17% are under a hybrid model and 17% are fully remote. Nine percent say the location is up to the employee, and 6% say there is no formal policy right now.

“It’s interesting to note that people fully working from the office say they’re more productive there than working remotely, while those who are fully remote say they’re more productive in that setting as opposed to in an office,” said DeVestern. “Employer decisions on work policies seem to reflect these employee preferences, as those who are working under a fully in-office model seem to prefer an office setting, while those in a hybrid or remote-work situation say they’d rather work remotely.”

In April 2020, the height of statewide lockdowns, Americans spent about 34% of their time in an office. This number is now about 55% and is expected to peak at around 61% of the time post-pandemic, according to the report. Americans currently spend about 33% of their working time remotely and expect it to drop slightly, to 27%, post-pandemic. Overall, expectations regarding work setting have remained highly consistent from April 2020 through now, as Americans anticipate spending more time working from home in the post-pandemic future than they did before the pandemic.

  • Home goods. “The pandemic has caused a spike in the amount of time people are spending at home, which has meant, unsurprisingly, that people are also spending more money on their homes,” said Chris Randall, L.E.K. Managing Director and report co-author. “The interesting piece is that consumers are expecting to continue their increased investment in their homes for the next three years. In fact, 52% report they will permanently increase their spending on home goods in the next three years, and 26% expect to increase spending in multiple areas of the home, like home decor, media electronics, linens, large appliances, backyard recreation and so on. In other words, spending on and for the home appears to be a long-term trend.”

About L.E.K. Consulting
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