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Holiday shopping season is here, at least according to retailers

Summer has barely ended, but the holiday shopping season is upon us.

Amazon, Walmart, Target, Home Depot, Best Buy and other big retailers are kicking off big sales events as consumers continue to move up their holiday timetables. Many are trying to spread their spending in the face of persistently high prices, record credit card balances and the resumption of student loan payments.

“Retailers, understanding their consumer and understanding their fixed budgets, are trying to get a bite out of that holiday shopping sooner rather than later and maybe get little bites over a longer period of time,” said Natalie Kotlyar, a retail analyst at BDO.

Industry experts are offering mixed messages about what to expect this holiday season. Though consumer spending has proved resilient and inflation has eased significantly from last summer’s peak of 9.1 percent, federal data shows Americans are still forgoing discretionary categories to afford gas, groceries and other essentials.

Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve’s battle to tame inflation has pushed interest rates to their highest level in 22 years. Consumer debt has hit record highs, topping $1 trillion for the first time this summer, government data shows. And student loan payments — paused since 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic — resume this month for millions of borrowers.

But many consumers view holiday gift-giving as a necessity, Kotlyar said, and are willing to shop earlier, hunt for deals or cut out experiences like vacations or dining out. A survey from Bankrate found that 41 percent of consumers plan to seek coupons, discounts or sales, while nearly 1 in 3 plan to start shopping earlier.

“It’s just going to be a really constant promotional cycle from the retailers,” said Claire Tassin, lead retail and e-commerce analyst at Morning Consult.

A report from Proximic by ComScore, a marketing and analytics firm, and the ad tech platform Nexxen found that 61 percent of marketers expect to spend most of their holiday budgets in October and November — mostly via targeted online ads, social media and video streaming. And 86 percent of them plan to spend the same or more on advertising compared with last year.

The start of the holiday shopping season has been inching back for years, long abrading the novelty of Black Friday, which got its name because the rush of sales the day after Thanksgiving could change the retailers’ books from red to black. Powerful retailers like Amazon usually set the bar for early promotions, forcing competitors to follow, said Jie Zhang, a professor of marketing at the University of Maryland., an online platform for independent book stores, is offering free shipping to directly compete with Prime Day. And Amazon’s July Prime Day event coincided with big sales from Target and Walmart, boosting online retail sales by 0.6 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, and the newspaper’s interim CEO, Patty Stonesifer, sits on Amazon’s board.)

“It really is this vicious cycle,” Zhang said. “Everybody tries to beat their competitors, be the first to be on the market for holiday sales … and it just pushed everyone to be earlier and earlier.”

But consumers have signaled they want to shop early: 26 percent plan to start in October, according to Bankrate. But 12 percent began their holiday shopping before the end of August and another 12 percent started in September.

Prime Day falls on Tuesday and Wednesday, Walmart’s Holiday Kickoff savings event runs Monday through Thursday, Target Circle Week ended Saturday. Best Buy is offering member exclusives discounts every day this month, plus a 48-hour flash sale on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Home Depot is running a “Decor Days” event, where customers can score savings on everything from holiday decorations to furniture, kitchenware and light fixtures, through Monday. Ulta’s “Gorgeous Hair Event” with discounts on products, tools and treatments, is on through Oct. 21, and Sephora’s Beauty Insider starts Oct. 27.

Adobe projects online sales will hit $221.8 billion from Nov. 1 to Dec. 31, a 4.8 percent increase over last year. But overall spending will likely be significantly higher — 39 percent of consumers plan to do most of their shopping online, according to Bankrate, while 29 percent plan to do most of their shopping in person.

Tassin expects to see more consumers using buy now, pay later services like Affirm, Klarna and Afterpay, this season. During Amazon’s July Prime Day, 6.4 percent of sales were made using BNPL programs, according to Adobe.

“I think that it is still a space where there’s quite a lot of room for growth as consumers find more accessible ways of taking on debt, because often — not always — BNPL loans can be interest free for a set amount of time versus what your credit card interest is, is obviously higher right now than it was last year,” Tassin said.

One in 10 consumers plan to use the service this holiday season, according to Bankrate, and Adobe forecasts that BNPL spending through November and December will reach $17 billion, a nearly 17 percent jump year-over-year.

Consumers have gotten accustomed to these kinds of markdowns and sales events, Kotlyar said. They also know to compare prices, so any brand or store loyalty is tossed out the window if they can find a better deal.

“We have trained our consumers that there is going to be a sale, there is going to be a promotion, there is going to be a Prime Day,” she said. “And so they’re waiting for it. They’re not going to make that purchase, especially today, without a promotion.”

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