$147B

total spent on online holiday purchases in 2018

19%

percentage of Americans who don't like their gifts

1 in 5

ratio of Americans who go into debt at Christmastime

70%

percentage of Americans who feel Christmas is too focused on money

Last year, Americans spent over $707 billion in retail sales between November 1 and December 31, a nearly 3 percent increase in spending from the prior year.

We look a little more closely into how this money is typically spent in the U.S., Australia, and parts of Europe.

Where Are We Buying Christmas Gifts?

According to the National Retail Federation, Americans spent nearly $147 billion at online and non-store retailers in 2018, compared with $560.5 billion at physical stores.

The chart below shows the percent of sales made online versus at various physical locations.

As you can see from the chart above, nearly 80 percent of all money spent during the holiday shopping season (around $560.5 billion) was spent at a physical location, while only around 20 percent was spent online.

While online sales have been growing quickly over the past several years (explored in the graph below) they still have a long way to go in order to catch up to the amount spent at brick and mortar locations.

The graph below shows how much American consumers spent online over a ten year period on Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday.

Online sales over Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday rose steadily between 2008 and 2015, then began to take off from 2016-2018.

In fact, online sales in 2018 for these two days alone were nearly double the total amount spent in 2017, going from around $3.9 billion in 2017 to more than $6.9 billion in 2018. These figures do not include sales from Cyber Monday, a relatively recent phenomenon.

With online shopping being only one avenue for shoppers, let’s take a look at the other options shoppers use to make their holiday purchases.

Online shopping is beginning to slowly edge out the competitors, with 59 percent of consumers doing their holiday shopping online. However, most Americans use a combination of purchasing items online and in stores.

In fact, department stores were next with 57 percent of consumers choosing to shop in a physical department store location.

Discount stores and grocery stores (including supermarkets) were third and fourth, respectively, with 54 percent and 46 percent of consumers choosing to spend their holiday dollars at those locations.

Thankfully, drug stores were only frequented by 15 percent of consumers, and hopefully their loved ones weren’t disappointed by the results!

Now that we know where everyone likes to shop, let’s break down how much we’re actually spending and what we tend to spend our money on.

How Much Are We Spending?

The total amount Americans spent last year may sound overwhelming. $707.5 billion is such a large number, it might almost be meaningless. So we’re going to personalize it.

Last year, the average American spent roughly $313 per person from Black Friday through Cyber Monday, whether that was online or in a physical location, which was slightly down from 2017.

Again, the above chart includes spending at both online retailers and those with physical locations. We take a look at trends in total American holiday spending for the past several years in the chart below.

As you can see in the chart above, although per-person spending was down over the Thanksgiving weekend, total spending in 2018 outstripped holiday spending in 2017, with shoppers spending around $686 billion in 2017 compared with $707.5 billion in 2018.

In the past 10 years, spending has steadily increased, with no year-to-year decline in spending for any year during that period. It doesn’t look like holiday sales are going to slow down any time soon!

But are we all spending a little too much over the holidays? The chart below looks at the percentage of consumers who went into debt to pay for the holidays in 2015.

Across Europe, an average of 10 percent of consumers went into debt to fund their holidays. That number was quite a bit higher in the UK and Romania, with 17 percent and 19 percent of consumers going into debt, respectively.

In the United States, 22 percent of consumers (more than one in five) stated that they went into debt to fund their Christmas spending, while 14 percent of Australians said the same thing.

The chart below indicates that the majority of Americans, Europeans, and Australians feel that Christmas has become too commercialized and centered around how much money is spent on presents.

As you can see, 70 percent of both Europeans and Americans felt that Christmas has become too focused on spending, while 75 percent of Australians agreed with them.

Now that we’ve looked at where and when we buy, and now that most of us probably feel like the holidays are too centered around money, let’s keep going and see what we’re spending our hard-earned money on for Christmas.

What Are We Buying?

Interestingly, nearly the same percentage of Americans, Europeans, and Australians stated that they felt “forced” to spend money on Christmas. The chart below expands on that question.

As you can see, just over 40 percent of Australians and Europeans felt forced to spend money at Christmas, while in the United States, almost 50 percent felt that way.

Spain was the outlier, with almost 60 percent of respondents feeling that they were forced to spend money on Christmas.

So what are people buying, whether they feel obligated to spend the money or are genuinely excited about it?

According to the ING survey conducted in 2016, the types of items purchased most often as Christmas presents were:

  • Practical items
  • Gift cards
  • Money
  • Leisure gifts (hobbies)
  • Luxury items

We break these gift types down by region in the chart below.

As you can see, the most common gift to give was something practical, like a blender or other household item. In the U.S. and Australia, the second most common gift people gave was the classic gift card.

In Europe, the second most popular gift to give was something related to the other person’s hobby or leisure activities, such as golf clubs or easels.

Money was a more popular gift in the United States and Europe, with nearly 25 percent of respondents in the U.S. and nearly 20 percent in Europe receiving money for Christmas.

In addition to being the least likely to give money as a gift, Australians were also the least likely to give luxury items.

Note that the percentages in this chart add up to more than 100 percent as respondents were allowed to choose more than one option for type of gift received, since, of course, most people get more than just one Christmas present.

But, how many of those people actually liked the gifts they got? Are you just wasting that money you felt like you had to spend anyway? We find out below.

Will Your Gift be Regifted?

How good are you at choosing gifts for your loved ones? What about your co-workers?

According to the ING international survey, most people liked their presents.

As you can see, a whopping 78 percent of all European respondents liked the gifts they were given. And interestingly, 8 percent couldn’t remember whether they liked the present or not.

In the United States, the percentage of respondents who didn’t like their gifts was slightly higher at 19 percent, but that still means the vast majority of recipients like the gifts they receive.

However, it was noted in this survey that the least wanted gifts were:

  • Cosmetics
  • Sweaters
  • Shoes
  • Perfume
  • Ornaments

These can be tricky gifts for anyone to buy and perfume and cosmetics carry a lot of emotional value to them—so for these two items especially, it might be best to go with a tried and true gift card and let the recipient choose their own perfume and cosmetic items.

But, despite our best intentions, bad gifts (or choosy recipients) happen. What happens to those gifts that don’t make the recipient squeal with delight?

Here is what Europeans are doing with their unwanted presents, with the three most popular responses highlighted below.

Of the 15 percent of respondents who stated they received a gift they didn’t like, the majority of them kept the present anyway. As you can see, a surprisingly high percentage decided to try and make some cool cash on the deal.

A few tried to return the present to the store, while 5 percent of respondents were gutsy enough to give the present back to the person who gifted it to them.

Is there any sure-fire way to ensure you present gets the love it deserves? Well, let’s take a closer look at gift cards—often maligned as being a less-than-thoughtful gift, and see if they might be your perfect gift.

What About Gift Cards?

Lately, there seems to be a perceived backlash against giving gift cards as presents…usually because we assume the recipients don’t want or use them and they end up expiring (after more than a year) or just never get redeemed. Is that really the case, though?

From the prior chart, only 40 percent of Americans received gift cards in 2015, but nearly 59 percent asked for them that year. That means that nearly one in five people were disappointed on Christmas morning by finding out they hadn’t gotten an asked-for gift card.

According to the National Retail Federation, in 2017, gift cards were the most requested present, beating out all other options. This marked the 11th straight year that gift cards ranked higher than all other requested gifts.

The chart below breaks down the most popularly requested items in the United States in 2017.

As you can see, gift cards were the most requested at 61 percent, followed closely by clothing. Books or media were next with just under 40 percent, followed closely by electronics. Jewelry was requested by just under 25 percent of those surveyed.

What kinds of gift cards are we giving out for the holidays? In 2016, the majority were for restaurants, and those purchased least often were for electronics. We break out all categories in the chart below.

A little over one-third of purchased gift cards were for restaurants, which was nearly tied with department stores, also at one-third. Next was coffee shops at 20 percent, followed by entertainment cards (movies/sports/events) at around 17 percent, with electronics coming in last at nearly 16 percent.

Most Americans chose to purchase gift cards because it gave the recipient the freedom to pick out whatever they wanted, while also being a quick and convenient item to purchase.

Surprisingly, in 2015, only around 1 percent of purchased gift cards remained unused. However, that small percentage added up to around $973,000,000 in 2015.

Christmas “Extras”

Christmas presents aren’t the only holiday expenses we face, though. What about a gift bag to put your present in? And the card to go with it? And how about Christmas trees, ornaments, lights, and other decorations? They all add up to more than you might expect.

Even if you stay on-budget for your gift-giving, these holiday extras might just push you over your total planned budget.

In 2014, more than a third of Americans estimated that they’d spend at least $100 for Christmas decorations that year. In addition, it was estimated that Americans would spend an average of around $100 per person on holiday food items.

Add to that the roughly $3.2 billion spent by Americans on wrapping paper and gift bags annually, and you may quickly and unexpectedly exceed your budget. And we haven’t even discussed Christmas trees yet!

In 2017, Americans purchased 48,500,000 Christmas trees, slightly up from the 46,000,000 trees purchased the year before. These numbers include both real and fake Christmas trees. We analyze this a bit more in the chart below.

In the chart above, we see that Americans purchased slightly more real trees (around 27,000,000) than fake trees (around 21,000,000) in 2017. But how much did we end up paying for them?

In 2017, the average price for a real tree was around $75, while the average price for a fake tree was $107. Combining this data, we calculated that Americans spent more than $4.3 billion on Christmas trees in 2017.

All of these additional costs of Christmas can add up, and need to be factored into your spending plans for the holidays, just like Christmas presents would be.

In Summary…

Holiday spending, attitudes, and gift-buying practices aren’t that different around the world. And almost everyone agrees that the holidays have become more focused on buying gifts and spending money than they’d like.

Far from being unwanted, gift cards are the most asked-for gift and can be a huge time-saver, freeing you up to focus on other priorities, like purchasing those holiday decorations and a new tree.

The holiday season doesn’t have to be a strain on your wallet. With a little advanced planning—and an awareness of the extra costs of the holidays that can quickly add up—the holidays don’t necessarily have to bust your budget or put you in debt for the new year.

Sources

    1. National Retail Federation, “Monthly Economic Review, April 2019.”
    2. CNBC, “Black Friday Pulled in a Record $6.22 Billion in Online Sales: Adobe Analytics.” 
    3. National Retail Federation, “2018 Holiday Sales Grew 2.9 Percent Amid Turmoil Over Trade Policy and Delay in Data Collection.”   
    4. Statista, “Comparison of U.S. Online Sales Revenue on Thanksgiving and Black Friday from 2008 to 2017 (in Million U.S. Dollars).”
    5. National Retail Federation, “NRF Consumer Survey Points to Busy Holiday Season, Backs Up Economic Forecast and Import Numbers.” 
    6. Statista, “Christmas Trees Sold in the United States from 2004 to 2017 (in Millions).”  
    7. EZnomics, “ING International Survey: Presents of Mind–Christmas 2016.”
    8. National Retail Federation, “Winter Holidays: Historical Holiday Sales and 2018 Forecast.”
    9. GiftCards.Com, “Top Gift Card Statistics.”  
    10. National Retail Federation, “Early Promos, Great Deals Put Traditional Gift Card Buyers in Gift Wrapping Mode Instead This Year.”
    11. U.S. News and World Report, “The Hidden Costs of the Holidays.
    12. PBS Newshour, “Why are More and More Americans Buying Fake Christmas Trees?”