In an unprecedented year, consumers say holiday will still be a time of joy but 70 percent caution retailers to watch their tone and change how they portray the season in their advertising to reflect their realities.

Amidst a global pandemic, seismic impacts on the retail industry at large, and shifts in consumer spending, the 2020 holiday season promises to be unusual. Retailers and store brands traditionally cue the start of the holiday season—the music, the window displays, holiday lights, red coffee cups, and tear-jerking ads. Yet as people are having to adapt to change and new constraints, and brands are having to respond in real-time, 69 percent of consumers expect retailers to change how they portray the holidays in their advertising to reflect how life has changed since Covid-19.

To help brands build communications and marketing plans for the upcoming holiday season, through a survey of 2,000 U.S consumers conducted by Edelman Data & Intelligence between September 10th–16th, we sought to uncover insights into how the public plans to celebrate and new expectations of brands and retailers in 2020.

Honoring the true spirit of the season

Despite the stream of negative news this year, 63 percent of consumers say holiday will still be a time of joy, with Gen Z (70 percent) and Millennials (65 percent) looking forward to the season far more than older generations. Yet 83 percent of all consumers agree their holiday will be different in some way. Consumers are focusing on togetherness, gratitude and giving back, and celebrations that center around the home—and they want to see these sentiments portrayed in retail advertising. “Rather than ads focusing on big sales, unity and togetherness should be the main message,” a Gen X respondent suggested. Interestingly, Boomers and the Greatest Generation are less concerned about finances this year. Instead, they worry about loneliness. “Because of shelter-in-place and self-isolating, I won’t have anyone around me to celebrate,” said one Boomer.

Going all out, at home

The trend of cocooning—staying home and limiting face-to-face interactions—that took off in the immediate response to Covid-19, will continue into the holidays, with consumers keen on creating festive spaces, and planning micro gatherings close to home. More than 40 percent of Gen Z, Millennials and Hispanics plan to “go all out” this season, with most of their energy focused on decorating their homes and preparing more special holiday meals.

Not surprisingly, technology will play an important role in enabling both younger and older consumers to celebrate the season with friends and family who cannot be with them in person this year. The ubiquity of video chats and new consumer behaviors formed during remote work and school will be carried over to the festivities, as one in five Gen Z and Millennial consumers plan to host or attend a virtual holiday party.

Gifting is high stakes, where thoughtful presents matter more than affordable ones

Thanks to an October Prime Day, and many consumers reconsidering Halloween celebrations like in past years, 70 percent of Gen Z and more than half of Millennial, Hispanic and Black respondents say they will be starting their holiday seasons by Halloween. That includes starting shopping much earlier. But gift-giving will change this season as many consumers anticipate purchasing fewer gifts, indicating that finding thoughtful gifts will be more important, and difficult, than ever.

While 44 percent of all consumers anticipate spending less on gifts this upcoming season, 27 percent of Gen Z and 20 percent of Millennials anticipate spending more. And interestingly, one in five consumers plan on sending gifts to people who haven’t been on their list before. Magazines and annual holiday gift guides will reflect what consumers are looking for. “This year, we’re going to keep our gift guide under $50 and under $25 to ensure our readers can afford our recommendations,” said a gift guide editor from monthly women’s lifestyle magazine. According to another national entertaining and lifestyle magazine, “We’ll be looking at gifts under $150.”

Being a good neighbor by giving back locally

Charitable giving is critical to consumers this season, and they are willing to spend more with retailers that give back to essential workers and those less fortunate. More than 60 percent agree it is more important to give back this holiday season, and half of Gen Z and Millennials say they are willing to spend more or buy from a retailer who gives back to the local community or donates to charity.

By offering essential worker discounts, “buy one, give one” offers or donating to local charities, brands can show consumers that they understand what is important to them. It provides an opportunity to differentiate and even compel more spending from more frugal shoppers this season.

Spending more with stores that prioritize safety

With safety, sanitation and ease-of-use topping priorities in consumers’ minds, every store needs to think like a convenience store now (where consumers can get in and out quickly), meaning most consumers are not willing to risk shopping with retailers they believe have questionable safety practices.

From cashless checkouts to contactless curbside pickup, the pandemic has forced many retailers to innovate fast and completely revamp the in-store shopping experience. Communicating and demonstrating safety for both customers and employees will be critical this holiday season, with 47 percent of consumers confirming they will spend more with a retailer that clearly prioritizes the health and safety of store workers.

So, what does this all mean for marketers and communicators in Holiday 2020? Store brands and retailers continue their part of the holiday tradition for consumers, and this year, that role will create a much-needed sense of normalcy in culture. Consumers want the holidays to feel special. And the tension between how much money they plan to spend and how they want to spend their time gives brands permission to think beyond flash sales and door-busting deals.

Suzy Kiwala is Managing Director, Brand at Edelman. Gi-Gi Downs is Managing Director, Strategy and Retail Experience at Edelman. 

Survey conducted Sept 10-16, 2020, among 2,000 nationally representative U.S. 18+ adults, with a margin of error of +/- 2.1 percent.