Supply chain chaos, labor shortage, inflation: How has it impacted holiday shopping in Utah? New poll has answers

Record inflation, a global supply chain in turmoil and critical national labor shortages have combined to turn the 2021 holiday shopping season into a hot mess as shipping delays, out-of-stock issues and higher prices lead to curves on the usual road to completing gift lists.

In a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll, a majority of Utahns said they’re making adjustments to navigate the holiday shopping challenges in a year expected to still outpace the record holiday spending set in 2020.

The survey, conducted Nov. 18-30, found that about 1 in 5 Utahns say they are spending less than in previous years and almost a third started holiday shopping earlier than usual. And while 17% of respondents said they’d be turning to in-person shopping to avoid shipping delays, 39% said their shopping tactics hadn’t been changed by the unique circumstances this year.

The polling was conducted by Dan Jones & Associates of 812 Utah registered voters. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.44 percentage points.

Even as some holiday shoppers in Utah, and across the country, say they are tightening their belts in the midst of inflation that reached a 30-year high in October and is expected to continue, retail industry experts believe 2021 holiday spending will still surpass the record $789.4 billion mark set last year.

Shoppers walk through City Creek Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021.
Shoppers walk through City Creek Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021. | Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

While the 2021 Cyber Week, the holiday shopping window that begins on Thanksgiving and ends on Cyber Monday, failed to outpace the same stretch of 2020, for the first time, industry watchers said that was an outgrowth of much higher volumes of earlier-than-usual holiday purchases, spurred in part by retailers offering early discounts.

“With early deals in October, consumers were not waiting around for discounts on big shopping days like Cyber Monday and Black Friday,” said Taylor Schreiner, director of Adobe Digital Insights, in a press release. “This was further fueled by growing awareness of supply chain challenges and product availability.

“It spread out e-commerce spending across the months of October and November, putting us on track for a season that still will break online shopping records.” 

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That outsized volume of early shopping included almost $110 billion in online purchases from Nov. 1 to Nov. 29, a jump of nearly 12% over last year. And 22 of those days exceeded $3 billion in online spending, a new milestone according to Adobe Digital Insights. In 2020, only nine days topped $3 billion over the same stretch. Adobe analysts report consumer online spending habits have smoothed out considerably, with e-commerce becoming a more ubiquitous daily activity. Adobe expects the full online shopping season, Nov. 1 to Dec. 31, to hit $207 billion, a 10% jump over last year and a new record. 

Supply chain bottlenecks are making some in-demand items difficult or impossible to find, and online consumers have seen a record number of out-of-stock messages this holiday shopping season. Adobe reports the prevalence of out-of-stock messages was up 169% in November versus pre-pandemic levels (January 2020) and up 258% over 2019 rates. Adobe predicted those issues will persist through the end of December.

Shoppers walk through City Creek Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021. | Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

As the new Deseret News poll reflects, shipping and availability challenges this year in online shopping have pushed more customers back to brick-and-mortar businesses, some of whom have worked to mitigate supply chain challenges with more careful inventory management and committed efforts to bring shoppers in early.

Among those is Salt Lake independent bookseller King’s English Bookshop.

In an October Deseret News interview, King’s English co-owner Calvin Crosby said supply chain transportation issues combined with understaffed manufacturing and distribution operations amid national labor shortages is amplifying challenges for retailers in all sectors. For booksellers, he said, publishers and distributors put out notice that on-hand inventories would likely not be replenished until after the holidays, forcing the hands of owners to either stock up early or risk being left with empty shelves during the high-volume holiday shopping season.

“October is the new December,” Crosby said. “We’ve done some really heavy ordering. So much so that it’s led to interesting storage challenges for our small store. But, the abundance of inventory is necessary knowing that our options will dwindle later in the season.”

Along with the front-loading-as-necessity strategy, Crosby said his store has also launched a companion outreach campaign to get shoppers engaged while selections are at their best.

Bill Sartain, owner of iconic Salt Lake specialty store Tutoring Toy, told the Deseret News last month that his shop has been serving an unusually high volume of early holiday shoppers over the past several weeks and, in spite of navigating ongoing availability and supply chain challenges, is well stocked for the season.

“People have gotten the word on supply chains,” Sartain said. “We’re certainly seeing earlier shopping and higher volumes on a daily basis than we have historically.”

Sartain said his store, which has been a staple for many Utah families since 1988, has been prepared for the earlier-than-usual crowds and timed its pre-holiday ordering and inventory buildup accordingly.

He also noted how the unique conditions created by the converging supply chain, labor shortage and inflation issues have made the retail season tricky to predict, even for a business that’s successfully weathered 33 years of holiday madness.

“It’s typical to see an explosion in store volume over the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Sartain said. “But with the steady and substantial increases we’ve already seen, I’m left wondering whether the trend will continue or if we’ll get a slump.”

Shoppers walk through at City Creek Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021. | Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News