In short, Americans have adopted a new commercial pragmatism. A year ago, as consumers were processing the shock of COVID-19 and its lockdowns, the marketers’ imperative was conveying empathy and communicating about safety. Now, with vaccinations rising and infections declining, brands face a more inviting marketplace. While Americans know the danger has not entirely passed (63 percent said that the pandemic is not over), the positive trends has kindled optimism among consumers ready for it after a wearying year of lockdowns and turmoil. Brands, in turn, can meet those shoppers where they are, in a place of pragmatic optimism: Keep their advertising optimistic while leavening it with the kind of actionable information shoppers are looking for, such as where the product is available, how it works, whether it’s on sale and how durable it is.
Who's leading the big summer spending spree?
Drilling down, three consumer groups lead the summer spenders. First, there are the bargain hunters, those especially interested in prowling clearance sections, clipping coupons and taking advantage of sales events. They are more likely than their fellow Americans to plan on spending more on items and activities, especially electronics (57% of those who expect to shop during major sales events said they would buy more such non-grocery items, as compared with 30% overall) and in-home entertainment (44% as compared to 23% overall). In many ways, they typify the post-COVID consumer: ready to spend but planning on doing so smartly.
The second major group can be termed stir-crazy parents, though that phrase might be redundant after 14 months of kids struggling with remote learning and being cooped up in isolation. Little wonder they are anxious to get out of the house and back into the world. Those with children at home and/or children under 18 are sharply more likely to report plans to increase spending than the population overall and, in particular, those without children under 18 and/or at home. The difference is especially pronounced regarding activities such as concerts and movies, 40% of parents with children under 18 plan to spend more, as compared to only 23% of respondents without kids. Travel is another distinct divide: “under-18” families are more likely to plan on spending more on it than those without this summer (35%-22%) and winter (30%-16%).
The final group of spenders is the mid-career group, those aged 35-44. In virtually every category, from in-store spending to vacations to apparel to electronics, this demographic is more likely than any other, younger or older, to say it plans to increase outlays. These are pent-up spenders who have income and are anxious to dispose of it after a year in lock-down. More than anything else in advertising, they want the concrete facts about products: Tell them where they can find it, how it works and how durable it is. Notably, this group is far more interested than any other age group in how products look—in fact, consumers aged 35 to 44 want to hear more about aesthetics than whether a product is on sale. Having money to burn of course impacts priorities, so when targeting these shoppers, advertisers can lean more into their brand’s aesthetic appeal.
Even with a summer boom percolating, a hard floor of retrenchers—around 20%—plans to spend less time and money in virtually every category. Generation X, which suffered disproportionately during the pandemic (a higher percentage of Xers said their household incomes worsened during the pandemic than any other such cohort) and remains warier financially than other age-groups, leads these lingering COVID-cautious. It’s not that Xers aren’t planning to spend more—they do, in numbers roughly in line with the general population. But at the same time, a larger share of this generation plans to spend less, signaling ongoing financial insecurity. Take eating out: 31% of Gen Xers plan to spend more on it (versus 32% of the general population) while 27% plan to spend less (as opposed to 20% overall).
That reticence extends to advertising messages. Almost across the board, Gen Xers are less interested in tested types of branded content than the overall public, most notably regarding sales: while 44% of Americans are interested in whether a product is going to be on sale, only 34% of Gen X consumers are. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that Xers were less likely than the rest of the country to plan to shop at Amazon Prime-style mega-sales. The bottom line is that it’s important to know your core consumer; sometimes a sale isn’t the answer to bringing them back.
What Xers do want to hear falls along the same pragmatic lines as the rest of the country: How does the product work and where can they buy it? Perhaps surprisingly, Xers are less interested in learning whether products are on sale—but maybe this reflects a general reticence. If you plan to spend less, perhaps sales events hold diminished appeal.
But again, it’s not an overall question of spending less, just who’s least enthusiastic about spending more. Just as temperatures are heating up, so are pocketbooks.