There’s a lot to cram into the holiday season, the consumer brain and the body politic right now.
With just 26 days between carving the turkey and unwrapping the presents, it will be a quicker-than-usual sprint this year, and there are more headlines and news alerts than ever to distract shoppers.
If the House’s investigation into President Donald Trump leads to an impeachment in relatively short order, the Senate will be in the midst of a trial to determine if he should be removed from office just as retailers are putting up the holiday discounts.
With the Senate firmly led by Republicans, Trump seems set to stay. But the process promises to bring the fiery rhetoric around all things Trump to a new fever pitch.
Already there is enough for merchants to fret. Total retail sales fell unexpectedly in September. And the broader economy appears to be faltering, with the International Monetary Fund projecting global growth will slow to 3 percent this year — its slowest since the financial crisis — based on rising trade barriers and geopolitics.
Is there any chance consumers will log off e-commerce and stay away from stores as they tune in to the trial or put their finger to the economic winds?
The good news is: Probably not, said experts.
The headlines have been so chaotic and for so long that more hubbub in the Senate or some euro-centric fallout from the continuing Brexit saga is not going to hit the shopping nerve in the U.S.
In part, that’s because Americans have already retreated within and found something of at least a temporary cure in spending.
“Retail is therapy,” said Michael Brown, a partner in A.T. Kearney’s retail practice, noting younger shoppers “spend to feel better.”
So the distraction of an impeachment “doesn’t mean much” from a consumer perspective, he said.
“The consumer right now is strong, consumer spending is strong and there’s a lot of momentum behind people spending,” he said. “The consumer is engaged and making up for years of non-spending. I don’t think these things are going to stop.”
He said the traditional retail crowd is still struggling with new rivals picking up share, but that overall the industry was gaining and that shoppers would spend until issues start to directly relate to consumers’ own wallets.
There are some spots of trouble — for instance the 46,000 people in the United Automobile Workers who have had a six-week strike against General Motors and are now voting on a tentative contract. Whatever the workers decide, Anderson Economic Group estimates that by Sunday, the strike will have caused $1.75 billion in operating losses for GM and $989 million in lost wages, as well as $485 million in potential settlement payments to union workers.
But overall unemployment stands at just 3.5 percent — its lowest level in 50 years — and weekly wages are up 2.6 percent over the past year, to $966.30.
That economic momentum and the never-ending whirl around Trump have lessened the impact of the drama surrounding the impeachment.
“It’s not the big tipping point as it would have been 10 years ago,” said Martin Lindstrom, branding expert and author of “Small Data.”
In part, that’s because people are subconsciously bypassing Washington and staying closer to home mentally.
“People are withdrawing from the flow of broader information and going back to a world where they’re more interested in a cat-stuck-in-a-tree kind of news,” Lindstrom said. “The transparency we’ve had in our world, which everyone believed was really good, has actually turned out to be the opposite.”
Turned off by a social media monolith that shows them what others have and they lack, many people have retreated to what he called “sub-sub-sub-communities” with a “limited number of people, all having their own language” and existing in a cocoon.
U.S. shoppers at large might also be in something of their own enclosure when it comes to the economy.
“Most of the consumers I speak with in Europe are all pretty convinced a recession will happen in the next year,” Lindstrom said. “In the U.S., most people are convinced it won’t happen.
“We reached a point in the world where perception has become more real than reality,” he said. “I don’t think the U.S. will go into recession on its own. It will happen through the back door, not the front door,” with worries abroad eventually causing real weakness in the U.S.
In the meantime, Lindstrom said Americans have turned inward, away from the chaos.
“If you are in the eye of the hurricane, it’s completely silent,” he said. “A lot of people are withdrawn into the center. That’s where we have the consumer in the U.S. In Europe, you will see people are tearing their hair out, frustrated about things.”
Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist at Golden Gate University and author of “Decoding the New Consumer Mind: How and Why We Shop and Buy,” is seeing a similar trend.
“We’ve been experiencing a lot of turmoil and trauma and consumers are relatively resilient” with their spending, Yarrow said. “I would say they have blinders on at this point. They have their hands over their ears and are saying ‘la la la la.’
“Consumers are looking for escape and there’s nothing like holidays to get re-grounded on family and feel-good human connections that people want right now,” Yarrow said.
“As human beings, we’re really not dominated by logic a lot of ways when it comes to shopping,” she said. “When it seems like we should be scared, sometimes what we do instead is we go into denial mode. Or there’s so much news a lot of times, what we do is block it all out. In a weird kind of way, it’s having the opposite effect, instead of becoming hypervigilant, people have given up and become more independent in how they view their finances.”
So, political upheaval and global economics be damned — people are going to spend if they want to and the guiding light will be their interpretation of their own financial standing.