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Dec. 1, 2023

Ask the experts: What to know about consumer preferences this shopping season

Although two big shopping days are behind us – Black Friday and Cyber Monday – U.S. retailers still must account for a significant increase in shoppers this December. In fact, for some companies, the holiday shopping season accounts for 50% of annual revenue. But economic uncertainty and recent inflation could put a damper on customers’ holiday spending, according to research from Michigan State University.


Ayalla Ruvio is an associate professor of marketing and the director of the Master of Science in Marketing Research and Analytics program at MSU, and Forrest Morgeson is an associate professor of marketing in MSU’s Broad College of Business. For the second year in a row, they surveyed more than 500 Americans about their holiday shopping plans, finding that, this year, consumers are excited for deals and looking forward to treating themselves, but they are feeling squeezed by high prices.

Ruvio and Morgeson provide insight on current consumer preferences, and they answer questions about the impact of inflation this shopping season.

Responses are excerpts from an article published by The Conversation.

Ayalla Ruvio headshot.
Ayalla Ruvio is an associate professor of marketing and the director of the Master of Science in Marketing Research and Analytics program in MSU's Broad College of Business. Courtesy photo.

What does the data from Black Friday and Cyber Monday tell us?

When it came to Black Friday and Cyber Monday, two-thirds of respondents said they think deals would be as good as or better than they were last year — up from 56% in 2022. That is in line with the predictions of market research firm Adobe Analytics, which expects record discounts this year. The share who planned to prioritize shopping for necessities fell slightly from 2022, while those who planned to buy luxury items rose modestly. Meanwhile, plans to spend on big-ticket items stayed stable at 15%.

Despite a minor shift to more expensive items, these findings are concerning for retailers. That is because big-ticket items have historically been one of the top three categories for consumers spending money on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, and 15% is on the low side. Like in 2022, most consumers we surveyed — 68.2% — planned to shop mostly online. Fewer than 11% of the respondents in our survey said they planned to shop in-store this Black Friday, so malls may suffer from lower foot traffic.

Do inflation and higher prices pose a challenge for consumers this year?

High prices and inflation are still consumers’ main concerns, with roughly 90% of our respondents saying that those issues will affect their holiday shopping. On average, they plan to spend about $665 on gifts this holiday season — about $35 less than last year and substantially less than the National Retail Federation’s 10-year average of $826.

On a more optimistic note, the number of people who said they intend to spend ‘slightly less’ or ‘much less’ than last year fell to 24.2% this year — a 10-percentage-point drop from 2022. While nearly 39% of respondents said they will spend ‘about the same’ amount, in nominal terms this means that they will be spending less accounting for inflation.

Meanwhile, shoppers are budget planning more than ever. Consumers told us they plan to use a variety of strategies to control their purchases, such as making strict shopping lists and starting shopping earlier to spread out their spending.

However, we found a silver lining for retailers: While consumers are planning to spend less this year, they expressed more interest in brand names and expensive gifts, which tend to have higher profit margins.

Forrest Morgeson headshot.
Forrest Morgeson is an associate professor of marketing in MSU’s Broad College of Business. Courtesy photo.

What other insights can you glean from consumers’ survey data?

One notable change between 2022 and 2023 is that more customers think retailers will offer “great value.” This indicates that while consumers are looking for the best prices and affordable options, they are not necessarily looking for cheap products.

In times of economic uncertainty, consumers want to stay in control of their spending. So, it is not surprising that almost 50% of our respondents said they would be doing their holiday spending using funds they had saved for that purpose. A similar proportion said they plan to use credit cards.

However, the use of buy-now, pay-later options is stagnating at about 15%, even though many big retailers have adopted them. This suggests that even though these options are more readily available to consumers, budget-conscious shoppers may avoid them.

What does this research say about retail this year?

Our research adds to an overall mixed picture about this year’s holiday retail season. Trade groups and economic analysts have made conflicting predictions, with some forecasting a return to pre-pandemic holiday spending and others expecting shoppers to exercise caution.

Retailers are also split on their holiday forecasts. Amazon appears bullish, having significantly boosted its seasonal hiring, while FedEx and Target have been more downbeat.

That makes sense, given the broader economic context. Although the U.S. unemployment rate is relatively low at 3.9%, more than half of our survey respondents said they were worried about their job security, with about one-third saying they were ‘moderately’ or ‘severely’ worried. Only 13% said they had no financial concerns at all.

As the U.S. economy is still experiencing uncertainty, consumers are continuing to adopt recession-related shopping behaviors this holiday season. That means retailers would be wise to focus on providing true value.

By: Ayalla Ruvio and Forrest Morgeson

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