2016 Consumer Holiday Shopping Report

By Lauren Schwahn

2016 Consumer Holiday Shopping Report

By Lauren Schwahn

There’s no question that Americans will shop this holiday season, but shoppers’ attitudes and actions vary from generation to generation. Some shoppers are impulsive while others are organized. Some will use cash; others will go into credit card debt that takes time to pay off.

“With Black Friday on the horizon, the holiday season is certainly upon us, and not surprisingly, a vast majority of Americans are planning to shop for the perfect presents,” says Courtney Jespersen, NerdWallet’s retail expert. “But what is surprising is the differences in how generations of Americans budget, spend and even think about holiday shopping.”

Such differences are among the findings in NerdWallet’s first Consumer Holiday Shopping Report, which analyzes behavior and trends among millennials (those ages 18-34), Gen Xers (35-54) and baby boomers (55+). The report is based on a survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults commissioned by NerdWallet and conducted by Harris Poll.

Key findings

  • In 2016, American shoppers [1] plan to spend $657 on average, which is an increase over the numbers shown in similar NerdWallet research over the past two years: It’s 8% more than a 2015 survey indicated and 24% over 2014.
  • Of those who plan to purchase gifts this holiday season, millennials, on average, plan to spend $499, which is significantly lower than Gen Xers, who plan to spend $723, and baby boomers, who plan to spend $712.
  • Baby boomers were most likely to stick to their 2015 holiday budget (50%), while millennials were most likely to exceed it (30%).
  • 49% of Americans plan to use cash to pay for gifts this holiday season, which is 6% less than 2015 and 4% less than 2014.
  • 60% of millennials plan to use cash and 56% plan to use a debit card to purchase gifts this holiday season.
  • Gen X shoppers are almost twice as likely (9%) to still be paying off their 2015 holiday debt compared to both millennials and baby boomers (5%).
  • 65% of Americans who shop during the holiday season aren’t sure if they get the best deals when shopping.
  • Among American shoppers, 43% shop in-store [2] and some online; 35% of Americans think Cyber Monday has better deals than Black Friday.
  • 63% of American shoppers plan to spend the same amount on holiday purchases this year as 2015.
  • Among Americans who shop on Thanksgiving, Black Friday or Cyber Monday, millennials are more likely to spend more than five hours shopping on those days (39%) compared to Gen Xers (28%) and baby boomers (23%).

 

In this article

The average American shopping report

Millennial shopping report

Generation X shopping report

Baby boomer shopping report

The average American shopping report (adults age 18 and older)

Holiday rush breeds stress

Retailers can expect to see the usual hustle and bustle this holiday season. In 2015, 92% of Americans shopped during the holiday season. Roughly the same amount (87%) plan to purchase gifts this year.

Holiday shopping can conjure up the image of overcrowded malls and doorbuster stampedes, so it’s no surprise that Americans aren’t feeling completely jolly. When asked about their emotions toward holiday shopping, 29% of American shoppers reported feeling stressed, 25% overwhelmed, 17% frustrated and 7% confused.

Use less cash, spend more money

Plastic or paper? When asked which payment methods they’ll use for holiday gifts this season, 50% of Americans said they plan to use a major credit card or retail credit card to purchase gifts, while 41% will use debit and 49% will use cash. That’s a decrease in cash use over the last two years — 53% planned to use cash in 2014 and 55% planned to in 2015.

Although Americans propose to use less cash for holiday purchases this year, they’ll spend more money in general than they did the past couple of years. This holiday season, American shoppers plan to spend an average of $657, which is $50 more than 2015 ($607) and $128 more than 2014 ($529).

Drawn to stores

When it comes time to cross items off their lists, Americans tend to start up their cars rather than their computers and head to physical retail locations. Only 6% of American shoppers say they shop exclusively online during the holidays, yet 35% of Americans think the internet-wide sale day Cyber Monday has better deals than Black Friday.

Budgets not kept, savings not clear

Attitudes and behavior regarding expenses are somewhat muddled. Almost two out of five Americans (37%) consider themselves to be impulsive shoppers, which may be why only 42% of all respondents stuck to their 2015 holiday shopping budgets and 21% spent more than they planned to.

Among those surveyed, 44% say they’ll spend $500 or more, and 11% plan to spend over $1,000 on gifts this holiday season. But, as Jespersen notes, “There seems to be a real discrepancy between what shoppers think about holiday shopping and what they actually do when they shop.

Courtney Jespersen, NerdWallet's retail expert

“Drawn by the allure of sales, consumers shell out considerable amounts of cash during this time of the year, but the majority aren’t even sure if they’re getting the best deal,” she says.

While 77% of Americans who shop on Thanksgiving, Black Friday or Cyber Monday think they save money by shopping on those days, the majority of American shoppers (65%) aren’t sure whether they’re getting the best deals during the holiday season, and 64% think all sales held throughout the calendar year are somewhat the same.

Even though most Americans (69%) set a budget for the 2015 holiday shopping season, 44% incurred debt and took an average of two months to pay it off. And 6% have yet to pay off their debt. “Holiday shoppers mean well, but they aren’t always following through with their good intentions,” Jespersen says.

Shop in five hours or less

Shoppers don’t limit their time to the major sales holidays. While 87% of Americans are planning to shop for holiday gifts before the end of 2016, only 48% say they typically shop on Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Cyber Monday or a combination of the three.

For some, holiday shopping involves hours of standing in line or even camping out in front of a store overnight. How long does it take for the average shopper? Among those who buy on Thanksgiving, Black Friday or Cyber Monday, over two-thirds (70%) say they typically spend five hours or less shopping on those days. And just under one-third (30%) say they typically spend more than five hours, while almost 1 in 10 (9%) typically spend 10 hours or more.

Returns rare

Most holiday purchases made in 2015 were final. In fact, 73% of adults did not return any items they purchased or received during the 2015 season.

The most commonly returned gift was clothing (14%), while fragrances and jewelry/watches had the lowest return rate at 1% each.

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Millennial shopping report (18 to 34 years old)

Feeling flustered

On par with the general population, 88% of millennials plan to purchase gifts during the 2016 holiday season. Not that they are necessarily thrilled with the holiday shopping experience. In fact, it apparently is too much for a big chunk of them, with 45% of female millennials and 25% of male millennials saying they feel overwhelmed.

Cling to cash, avoid debt

Even though we are seeing a decrease in Americans planning to use cash for holiday gift purchases, millennials are the least likely (42%) compared to Gen Xers (50%) and baby boomers (55%) to pay with major or retail credit cards. A majority of millennials (60%) plan to use cash, and 56% plan to use a debit card to purchase gifts this holiday season.

But their reluctance to use credit cards may have an advantage: Among those who shopped during the 2015 holiday season, millennials are the least likely to have taken on credit card debt, with 62% having incurred none. Those who ended up with credit card debt took longer to pay it off (2.5 months) compared to Gen Xers and baby boomers (1.9 months and 1.4 months, respectively). Similar to Americans overall, 5% of millennials still carry debt from the 2015 holiday shopping season.

Put online shopping on the back burner

Despite popular conceptions, young shoppers aren’t automatically online shoppers. In fact, only 7% of millennials who shop during the holiday season shop exclusively online. Like many Americans who shop during the holiday season, 43% of millennials shop for gifts both in-store and online, even though 42% of millennials think Cyber Monday has better deals than Black Friday.

Breaking it down further, significantly more millennial males than females who shop during the holiday season report that they’re online-only shoppers, 12% vs. 3%.

Detect more savings, spend the least

Almost all millennials who shop on Thanksgiving, Black Friday or Cyber Monday (90%) think they save money by shopping on those days, which is 13% higher than the average American (77%). Despite having this sentiment, 66% of millennial shoppers aren’t sure if they get the best deals during the holiday season, and a majority (60%) believe all sales throughout the year are somewhat the same.

Over one-third of millennials (36%) reported sticking to their 2015 holiday budgets. To break it down further, 25% of millennial females did not set a budget, and 30% exceeded their budget; 18% of males did not set a budget and and 26% went over their budget. More millennials (49%) than Americans overall (37%) consider themselves to be impulsive shoppers.

In fact, 27% of millennials who plan to purchase gifts this holiday season plan to spend more this year than in they did in 2015. However, millennials who are going to shop for gifts plan to spend $499, which is less than the average American shopper ($657).

Shop longer, return more

Millennials seem to be prone to shopping long hours. Among those who’ve ever shopped on Thanksgiving, Black Friday or Cyber Monday, 39% typically spend five hours or more shopping. And who’s shopping longer? More men than women: 44% of millennial males report they typically take five hours or more to shop on those days, compared to only 34% of millennial females.

Millennials (38%) were more likely than Gen Xers (31%) and baby boomers (14%) to have returned items during the 2015 holiday season. And again, more millennial males (42%) made returns than millennial females (35%).

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Generation X shopping report (35 to 54)

Stress persists

Gen Xers are on par with Americans overall, with 86% planning to purchase gifts during the 2016 holiday season. They’re consistent with the attitude trend among the general population, with 30% of Gen X shoppers feeling stressed, 23% overwhelmed, 23% organized, 18% frustrated and 7% confused when doing their holiday shopping.

More female Gen Xers who shop during the holiday season reported feeling stressed (34%) compared to males (27%).

Use cards, spend more

Like Americans overall, 63% of Gen X shoppers aim to spend the same amount of money this holiday season as they did in 2015. The average Gen X shopper will spend $723 on holiday gifts this year, which is more than the average American ($657).

More than half of Gen Xers (59%) plan to pay for their holiday shopping with a major credit card or retail credit card.

On Black Friday — and throughout the holiday season — the burden of savvy shopping lies with the consumer.

Courtney Jespersen, NerdWallet's retail expert

Shop in stores, in speedy fashion

Among Gen X holiday shoppers, 94% flock to stores, even though 39% of Gen Xers believe that Cyber Monday has better deals than Black Friday. And more than twice as many Gen X male shoppers (7%) say they exclusively shop online during the holiday season compared to females (3%).

Of Gen Xers who shop on Thanksgiving, Black Friday or Cyber Monday, 72% say they’ll typically finish their shopping on those days in five hours or less, while 8% say they typically spend more than 10 hours.

Perceived savings and busted budgets

Among those who shop on Thanksgiving, Black Friday or Cyber Monday, 80% of Gen Xers think they save money by making purchases on those days, estimating an average of $197. Notably, male Gen Xers think they save more money ($227) than females ($169).

While 42% of Gen Xers stuck to their 2015 holiday shopping budgets, about 1 in 4 (23%) went over their budgets.

Debt lingers

Almost half of Gen Xers who shopped during the 2015 holiday season (47%) accumulated debt, and 9% still haven’t paid it off. This is higher than Americans overall (6%).

Impulsive, but seldom return

Higher than Americans overall, 41% of Gen Xers consider themselves to be impulsive shoppers, but only 31% returned items from the 2015 holiday season.

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Baby boomer shopping report (55 and older)

Shopping takes a toll

Among baby boomers, 86% plan to purchase gifts this holiday season. Shopping can be emotionally taxing: 27% of baby boomers who shop during the holiday season say they usually feel stressed, 17% overwhelmed, 16% frustrated and 4% confused.

Of baby boomers who plan to purchase gifts, 73% say they will spend the same amount on this year’s holiday shopping as 2015, planning to spend $712 on average. This is less than Gen Xers ($723) but more than millennials ($499).

Pay in store, use cash

Stores win out yet again. When they’re ready to shop during the holidays, 48% of baby boomers shop primarily at a physical retailer and do some additional shopping online. Baby boomers, like Gen Xers, share an online-only shopping rate of 5%, while 27% of baby boomers think Cyber Monday has better deals than Black Friday.

Almost half of baby boomers plan to pay for gifts the old-fashioned way, with 42% planning to use cash; 30% will use debit cards.

Approach holiday sales with skepticism

Like Americans overall, 64% of baby boomer shoppers aren’t certain that they’re getting the best deals during the holiday season, and 65% believe all sales throughout the year are somewhat the same.

Baby boomers think they save an average of $95 during the holiday season, which is the lowest amount among all the generations.

Not as impulsive, accumulate more debt

Baby boomers may be less likely to make spur-of-the-moment purchases; only 25% consider themselves to be impulsive shoppers. Still, 56% of baby boomers who shopped during the 2015 holiday season incurred credit card debt during that time, which is more than Americans overall (48%). However, baby boomers managed to pay off their debt in full faster, with only 5% of baby boomers still carrying debt from last holiday season.

Among baby boomers who shopped during the 2015 holiday season, exactly half (50%) stuck to their budget.

Fast shoppers who make few returns

Of baby boomers who typically shop on Thanksgiving, Black Friday or Cyber Monday, 78% say they usually spend five hours or less shopping on those days.

Only a small portion (14%) of baby boomers returned items bought during the 2015 holiday season.

How to shop smarter

The survey results indicate that there is still a fair amount of confusion around holiday budgets, savings and spending. Here’s how you can be a more efficient shopper this holiday season:

  • Create a list of the gifts you plan to purchase ahead of time.
  • Set a budget.
  • Do your research and compare prices online before you buy.
  • Consider using a credit card that offers cash back, price protection or 0% annual percentage rate.

“On Black Friday — and throughout the holiday season — the burden of savvy shopping lies with the consumer,” says NerdWallet’s Jespersen. “It’s crucial to create a predetermined list of what you want to buy, compare prices between stores before making a purchase, and stick to a realistic budget. While retailers will entice shoppers to spend more these next few months, shoppers have to be their own defense to shop smart.”

Lauren Schwahn is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: lschwahn@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @lauren_schwahn.

Methodology

The 2016 survey was conducted online within the United States by Harris Poll on behalf of NerdWallet Sept. 20-22, 2016, among 2,036 U.S. adults ages 18 and older. The 2014 survey was conducted Nov. 3-5, 2014, among 2,013 U.S. adults ages 18 and older, and the 2015 survey was conducted Oct. 22-26, 2015, among 2,052 U.S. adults ages 18 and older. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables, please contact Maitri Jani.

[1] American/millennial/Gen X/baby boomer shoppers refers to Americans/millennial/Gen X/baby boomers who plan to purchase gifts this holiday season.

[2] In-store refers to Americans who do all, most or some of their holiday shopping in-store.