Personal Finance

U.S. Consumers Feel Financially Confident as Holiday Season Approaches

A person carries wrapped gifts.

As the 2018 holiday shopping season approaches, most Americans are feeling pretty good about their finances. The majority of consumers believe the U.S. economy has improved since last year, and 75% expect that trend will continue in 2019, according to a survey of 2,021 adult shoppers conducted by Harris Poll for OpenX.

This is good news for retailers and others who benefit from the seasonal spending surge. More than four out of five of respondents said they plan to spend at least as much as they did last year, with 28% planning to spend more, 56% maintaining 2017's spending level, and 18% planning to spend less.

"Consumer confidence will drive robust spending this year with shoppers expecting to spend more than $800 on gifts," wrote OpenX. "Moms and dads will spend more than twice as much on children as anyone else. Millennials plan to spend more on pets (over $90!) than any other group. Nearly one out of five shoppers plan to make a big ticket purchase of $500 or more with technology items being the big winner this year."

A person carries wrapped gifts.

Holiday shopping has already begun. Image source: Getty Images.

When people shop is changing

The era of people waiting to buy gifts until Black Friday -- the day after Thanksgiving that traditionally kicked off the holiday shopping season -- has largely ended. Nearly 70% of shoppers surveyed said they'll begin buying their holiday items in September and October, while only 16% will wait until Thanksgiving weekend.

Shopping on Black Friday , which itself has swelled to include Thanksgiving evening as well, is "overwhelming," according to 60% of survey respondents. That contrasts with 73% who say they feel the opposite way about Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving when companies offer up some of their best digital deals.

What are people buying?

Perhaps one thing allowing so many people to start (and even finish) their holiday shopping so early is that 68% plan to give at least some folks gift cards. Those topped the list of the most popular gift categories for the holidays, followed by apparel at 63%, toys at 47%, technology at 37%, and a tie between video games and home goods at 31%.

Unsurprisingly, children will still be the greatest focus of our largess. Of the $819 Americans will, on average, lay out for gifts, $307 will be spent on kids. That's followed by $135 on gifts for our partners, $113 on other relatives, and amusingly, $70 on presents for ourselves.

It's a digital world

The holiday shopping season used to be fairly well defined, but it has morphed into a nebulous, four-month period with multiple sharp peaks of activity. In part, that can be chalked up to the retail world's perpetual cycle of one-upmanship, as chains try to get a jump on their rivals. And in part, it can be viewed as an outgrowth of the e-commerce revolution, which has made shopping a 24/7, 365-day-a-year pastime.

For consumers, that can be both a benefit and a curse. With the shopping season being fuzzier, it's harder to know when the best deals will become available. Companies now start offering "Black Friday" savings early in November, and it's impossible to know if prices will go lower -- a question that frequently hinges on how well items are selling.

If you want to land the best deals, you may need to start doing your research soon. Know what the items on your list cost at full price, and watch for deals. (There are a number of apps and websites that will automate the process for you, informing you about price drops at various retailers.) When you see a good price, jump on it -- then keep tracking that item at the store where you bought it. Some chains will refund you the difference if they cut the price on something you buy within a certain period after your purchase. But you usually have to ask.

Holiday shopping has evolved from a sprint into a marathon in many cases. That can be both rewarding and exhausting. If you do your homework and are willing to accept good deals knowing you may leave a few dollars on the table, you should be able to make it through without having to stand in lines for hours on Thanksgiving weekend. But if you're still a fan of the good old sprint method, you won't be alone. As the Harris survey notes, 6% of consumers won't even begin shopping for the holiday until the week before Christmas.

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