Consumer Spending Habits Are Changing — What to Know
The COVID-19 pandemic has been the biggest overnight financial shakeup in our country’s history. Its effects will be felt for years into the future, if not permanently. On the economic front, it’s caused a huge change in consumer spending, largely due to how people’s income and living/working patterns have shifted.
How Income Is Changing
According to a July report from the Congressional Research Service, the big changes in household income hasn’t affected everyone equally. Those who are hardest-hit already had a lower income to begin with — families with children, and non-white people. For example, 71% of parents earning under $25,000 per year have lost income, compared to only 33% of child-free households earning more than $200,000 per year.
In other words, the rich are staying rich (and even getting richer), while the poor are getting poorer. And since these high-earners are increasingly working from home, it’s caused massive shake-ups in consumer spending, with winners and losers on all fronts.
Top Spending Categories of 2020
The average family earned $68,703 (or $5,725 per month) during 2019, according to Census data. We don’t yet know what it’ll be for 2020, although it’ll almost certainly be lower when averaged across the entire population, including those with and without income losses. Here’s how the loss in income is affecting what people are spending their money on.
Pre-Pandemic: In 2019, the average household spent $579 on alcohol, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Pandemic: In April of 2020, alcohol spending was up by approximately 50%, according to an analysis from The New York Times.
With everyone stuck at home and a looming sense of existential doom everywhere you look, it’s no wonder that spending on alcohol has increased. The way people are buying their alcohol is shifting, too, according to a May 2020 Nielsen report. In-store sales of booze jumped by around 26% compared to the same time a year ago. Online sales were even more popular, with a 477% jump in direct-to-your-door delivery service.
In addition, people shifted to buying larger packages of alcohol, with a 20% jump in sales of 24- and 30-packs of beer and cider, and a 2% decrease in sales of six-packs. Sales of boxed wine in particular were also up by 44% from the previous year, as was 1.75L Costco-sized jugs of hard liquor, with a 47% increase.
Pre-Pandemic: The average family spent $4,643 on groceries in 2019, according to the BLS.
Pandemic: Grocery spending is up by 10%, according to an October report by The New York Times.
Whether it’s the sourdough bread craze or cozy comfort foods, many people have gotten a crash course in cooking from home over the past few months. And although groceries have always been a big part of the household budget (especially if you have teenagers), they’re higher now than they’ve ever been before.
However, you can get your groceries in a lot of ways, and some are booming more than others right now. For example, an earlier survey from The New York Times in April showed that while spending at supermarkets was largely the same compared to the prior year, spending at online grocers was up by 80%, food delivery spending was up by 50%, and spending on meal kits surged by 40%. This isn’t surprising, as many people are still (rightfully) wary of packed grocery stores and are instead opting for the convenience of ready-to-cook-from-home meals.
Pre-Pandemic: The average sales price of a home was $278,800 in August 2019, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR).
Pandemic: The average sales price of a home was 11% higher — $310,600 — in August 2020, according to the (NAR).
You’d think that the largest bombshell in U.S. economic history would derail the real estate markets that were already set off-course by the 2008 recession. So far (and surprisingly so), that hasn’t been the case. Despite the world burning (literally, if you live on the West coast), home prices continue to chug along at an increasing pace.
There’s been a lot of speculation about why this is. Some experts suggest that high-paid tech workers (those least likely affected by the pandemic), are now free of their tether to high cost-of-living areas and are thus increasingly flooding out into the suburbs along with all of their cash. In particular, properties that are well-designed for working from home (such as those with extra rooms that can double as offices) are in particularly high demand.
Areas Where Consumer Spending Dropped
As we’ve seen, some industries have picked up. But by and large, consumer spending is down, and here are some of the major industry drops.
Pre-Pandemic: The average family spent $2,037 on their summer vacation in 2019, according to an Allianz Insurance survey.
Pandemic: Travel spending is down by 57%, according to October 2020 numbers from Status Money.
Many of the highest-price travel is done overseas and at expensive places, like Disney World, and on cruise ships. Obviously, those things are out for this year.
So although you can’t take that expensive Paris vacation you’ve always been dreaming of right now, that’s not stopping a lot of people. In June 2020, the American Automobile Association (AAA) predicted that 97% of trips would be taken by car, either locally or around the U.S. After all, there are still many world-class natural wonders to see right here at home, whether it’s Yosemite, Old Faithful, or hiking along the Appalachian Trail.
Pre-Pandemic: The average U.S. family spent $1,883 on apparel during 2019, according to the BLS.
Pandemic: Clothing spending was down by around 60% in April, according to an analysis from The New York Times.
With so many people working from home via Zoom, you really only need clothes on the top half of your body (be careful not to stand up from your desk though!). Even so, with so many places closed down and no one to see you, people just aren’t spending as much on clothes these days as they used to.
Some of this spending has recovered. For example, while The New York Times recorded a decline of around 60% on clothing spending in April, it had recovered a bit to just a 20% decline by October. Sales of cosmetics were also down by 14%, at least for cosmetics brand L’Oreal. According to a JP Morgan analysis, certain cosmetics were particularly hard-hit, with fragrances, luxury makeup, and professional supplies down by 25%.
Pre-Pandemic: The average U.S. family spent $3,526 on dining out in 2019, according to the BLS.
Pandemic: Restaurant spending is down by 15%, according to The New York Times.
COVID-19 is particularly transmissible in enclosed environments with a lot of packed people that are touching their faces. It’s no wonder that restaurants have emerged as a flare in the debate between safety vs. the economy. After all, the restaurant industry alone employs 15.6 million people, according to the National Restaurant Association.
But just as with anything else, the impact isn’t equally spread across all types of restaurants. According to a May survey by McKinsey & Company, casual and fine dining saw the biggest declines of 70% to 85%, while pizza companies actually did better than usual, with up to a 5% increase in sales from the previous year.
How Spending Will Change Over the Holidays
Last year, the average consumer spent $1,048 on holiday shopping, according to the National Retail Federation. This year, a survey by Power Reviews shows that 73% of people expect to spend about the same amount on holiday shopping as last year, despite the present state of the economy.
One thing that is changing, though, is that more people will shop online this year, and earlier, too. According to the same Power Reviews survey, 64% of people are planning on doing more online shopping this year, and around 25% of people are planning on getting an early head start. This is largely due to concerns about inventory and shipping delays.
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