Are consumers ‘flattening the curve’ of peak shipping volumes?

In a year when uncertainty abounds, there’s plenty to share this holiday season.

When the term “flatten the curve” first entered most people’s vocabulary, it helped articulate what was essentially a public service announcement. Let’s all help manage demand for medical resources, because infrastructure and labor can only scale so fast. The term has become second-nature for many and may even ascended into the pantheon of phrases we will reserve for future crises, alongside such nostalgia-inducers as credit default swap and filter bubble.

While we all do our part to flatten the curve of COVID-19 infections, there’s another curve caused in part by COVID-19 restrictions that is in need of flattening – peak holiday shipping demand. Carriers are advising shippers. Suppliers are advising retailers. Brand marketers are advising consumers. Whether by promotions-carrot or by holiday-cutoff-stick, the message is consistent: shop early and flatten the curve of peak shipping volumes, because infrastructure and labor can only scale so fast.

So, are shoppers listening?

That’s what we sought out to find in the latest edition of BOXpoll—our weekly consumer survey of current events, culture and ecommerce logistics. As of October 20, we found that while about 1 in 4 consumers (26%) have started their holiday shopping…only 6% have actually finished their shopping. So, buckle up. 

Percentage of consumers that started holiday shopping, chart

It may not be news that we consumers are either holiday shopping slackers or wait-and-see deal seekers, but the extenuating circumstances of this year—when stores will safely open and at what capacity during Black Friday weekend (and how much demand that’ll drive online), for example—casts a shadow over our procrastination. So, we dug into which consumers are delaying the longest, and which are heeding the advice of credentialed logistics professionals.

  • 1 in 4 high income consumers (earning more than $100k/year) have already finished their shopping.
  • 12% of parents have already finished their shopping (while 52% have not started).
  • 1 in 5 adults expect to finish holiday shopping before Black Friday this year.
  • Millennials and parents (with children at home) are the most likely to finish shopping before Black Friday (28 and 31%, respectively).
  • Gen Z is most likely to take advantage of Black Friday with 29% saying they will finish shopping that week.
  • 86% of online shoppers will be done with their holiday shopping by the week of Christmas (14% are surprisingly defeatist shoppers planning to finish shopping during the week of Christmas).

Spending this COVID holiday season

With unemployment benefits expiring for many in the US, our previous BOXpoll findings uncovered some trepidation among consumers about discretionary spending ahead of peak. So, we asked: are you planning to spend more or less this holiday versus last?

For retailers, 57% of online shoppers plan to shop online more this year compared to last year with 38% planning to send gifts as opposed to giving in person. When it comes to wrapping, 36% agree that they would pay for wrapping to send directly to recipient, although 37% disagree, making this a controversial option. So, who is most likely to pay for wrapping? Not surprisingly: parents, high earners, and Millennials. One trend to watch, then: consumers who buy gifts (online or in-store) and then ship them to friends and family before the holidays—a factor that may not be well accounted for in the shipping forecasts of parcel carriers who also serve consumers.

How much will consumers spend this holiday?

Apparently only slightly more according to the consumers we surveyed about holiday shopping. Shoppers say they’ll spend on average approximately $80 more this year than last. That finding differs from the National Retail Federation (NRF) forecast, which saw consumers looking to spend $50 less this holiday season. While the NRF study has a larger sample size, the survey was conducted nearly a month before our BOXpoll survey at the end of October. 

In a development that may make both epidemiologists and shipping forecasters take a small sigh of relief, the product consumers are most likely to purchase for the holidays is…drum roll, please…gift cards at 51%. The easy-to-ship, electronic-version-available product is a win-win for those wary about either virus transmission or parcel capacity. Rounding out the top 5 are:  Technology (27%), “Comfortwear”(25%), Personal care (24%) and physical entertainment (also 24%). 

Maybe a sign of the times: Millennials are most likely to have selected alcohol as the gift they’d choose to give.

Political coal in stockings this year?

We also asked consumers about the impact of pending stimulus legislation on holiday spending. Nearly half (46%) of online shoppers expect another stimulus bill. 22% said they do not expect it with 32% saying they don’t know what will happen. 

90% of consumers would use stimulus checks to help fund holiday shopping; consumers expect on average to spend one third (34%) of their stimulus check on holiday purchasing. Parents and high income consumers (>100k/year) expect to spend as much as 52% of their stimulus checks on holiday shopping.

BOXpoll™ by Pitney Bowes, a weekly consumer survey on current events, culture,and ecommerce logistics. Conducted by Pitney Bowes with Morning Consult //2094 US consumers surveyed October 2020.© Copyright 2020 Pitney Bowes Inc.

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