The Emergence Of Gift Cards: Bob Shullman Of Shullman Research Discusses Surprising Findings About Holiday Shopping 2014


Even before Labor Day this year, many discount stores were putting out their holiday items: wreaths, lights, toys and candy shared the shelves with bathing suits and suntan lotion. But this time of year, now only weeks before the holiday season comes in full force, some fascinating research data has emerged, allowing marketers and others to become aware of how mass affluent and affluent Americans are planning to shop this year.

The Shullman Research Center published its Shullman Luxury, Affluence And Wealth Pulse in September, and the insights and data presented here are a dimension of that Fall 2014 wave. Five sample groups were surveyed that included a representative national sample of adults (1,003 interviews), plus four supplemental household-income segments that were targeted to obtain the following number of completed interviews, resulting in 1,056 interviews among upscale consumers with household incomes of at least $75,000: $75,000 to $149,999, $150,000 to $249,999, $250,000 to $499,999, $500,000 or more. Additionally, 497 respondents in this survey wave reported that their net worth was $1 million or more. In total, over 1,600 respondent were interviewed.

In addition to household income levels, the Pulse looks at how upscale Americans, defined by Shullman as those who live in households with incomes of $75,000 or more (the top 41 percent), are planning to shop for the holidays according to the generations to which they belong—Millennials, Gen-X'ers, Boomers and Seniors. These generations are defined in terms of age: Millennials 18 to 34, Gen-X 35 to 49, Boomers 50 to 68, Seniors 69 or older. This method is unique, and has garnered some interesting data.

Here are some of the relevant results of this study:

Online-only stores (such as Amazon and eBay) are the number one holiday shopping venue among all adult consumers, with three quarters (74 percent) of those with household incomes of $500,000 or more planning to shop at online-only stores. Discount stores (a close second among total adults) are more popular among the average consumer than among upscale segments.

Gift cards emerged at the top of the list of planned gifts for the holiday among total adults and all the upscale segments, with almost half (48 percent) of all adults planning to give gift cards this year. Among those with household incomes of $500,000 or more, more than one third (35 percent) plan on giving charitable donations. Finally, about one in six (17 percent) have not yet decided what to buy. Good news for luxury marketers.

Plans for holiday shopping among upscale consumers appears different for each generation. Upscale Millennials and Boomers are planning to spend more this year, over $1,500 on average, compared with Gen-X'ers and Seniors, whose planned spending ranges from about $1000 to $1100 on average.

A full three quarters (76 percent) of Boomers with household incomes of $75,000 or more plan to do holiday shopping at online-only stores this year. Discount stores are more likely to be used by Gen-X'ers, and specialty stores by Millennials. One half (51 percent) of upscale Boomers plan to shop for the holidays at local and independent stores.

Of the four upscale generations, Boomers are the most likely to plan on using the Internet for their holiday shopping (92 percent), and more than eight out of ten of the other three generations also plan to go online. Boomers and Seniors are most likely to use a personal computer, while Millennials and Gen-X'ers are more likely than their elders to plan on using mobile devices. Group shopping and social websites also appeal much more to the two younger generations for their holiday shopping.

We recently discussed the results of these data with Mr. Shullman, asking his interpretation of these results.

JustLuxe: In this research data, what did you find most surprising?

Bob Shullman: The emergence of the gift card. It is such a surprising finding, yet it is understandable also. It would seem so impersonal, and yet in our culture today everything is so hurried, people want something that says you are thinking about that person… but… you don’t have time to shop personally for them. It is an impersonal personal entity, it seems.

JL: Over all segments, people will be spending more this holiday season. Do you see that as a positive economic sign?

BS: It could be considered that way, but I think the Seniors are more sensitive to social and economic disruptions than the Millennials. After all, they have seen wars, political bad decisions and difficult ethical dilemmas before. So, Seniors are more cautious with money. Their days of collecting a salary are over, whereas Millennials and Gen X-Y’ers feel they can always make money, so why not spend it? So Millennials and Gen Xers will always offset with larger amounts, the smaller amounts that Seniors spend.

JL: So much interest has been focused on Millennials recently, yet in economic terms, many also feel this generation is still a mystery. Do you have any comments on this?

BS: I do. I think in terms of research, the problem is that many see Millennials as a whole group, whereas I see five sub-segments, all with diverse buying behaviors. One—single Millennials, living by themselves; two—single Millennials, living in a group situation; three—single Millennials who live at home with mom and dad; four—married or partnered Millennials with no children; five—married Millennials with children. They all have different behaviors when it comes to saving and spending, and different interests in how they should spend and what they should buy.