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What Holiday Shopping Tells Us About Innovations in Retirement Planning & Healthy Behaviors

December 14, 2011, 4:05 PM

Are you done? How many more days? Tick tock, tick tock. A recent Rasmussen poll may give you comfort or a kick. The nationwide survey conducted November 29-30, 2011 gives us a snapshot of how well everyone is preparing for the holiday rush that culminates in less than a month.



Have You Started Your Holiday Gift Shopping Yet?

  • Yes (47%)
  • No (49%)
  • Not Sure (3%)

Have you finished your holiday gift shopping yet?

  • Yes (11%)
  • No (86%)
  • Not Sure (3%)

The survey reveals that 11% of people reported that they are finished with their holiday shopping…good for them. Now for the rest of us – the other 89% that say they are not finished.  Chances are you are among the 49% of Americans who report they have not even started or among the other 47%  who claim they have started but are still muddling through. Nevermind the 3% who say they are ‘not sure ’…

Which generation best handles their holiday shopping? Would you expect the younger or middle-aged holiday revelers likely to get the job done earlier than others? A breakdown by age shows negligible differences. Only 10% of younger buyers between the ages of 18-29 say they are finished with their shopping while those ages 40-49 and 50-64 respectively report 12% and 13% have cleared their lists. About 11% of holiday shoppers in their 30s and over age 65 years old say they are done.

There are differences between men and women…but not necessarily in ways some might expect. Yes, women are first to start. 56% of women compared to only 37% of men say they have begun their shopping. But, the finish line is remarkably gender neutral. Only about 10% of men and 12% of women said they were finished less than a month out. But 55% of women do say they tend to finish shopping early, compared to 50% of male laggards who say they tend to wait until the last minute.

Rasmussen gives a glimpse of behaviors for something in the next 20-30 days. How about expected consumer behaviors in the next 10-20-30 years? The Employee Benefit Research Institute in collaboration with Mathew Greenwald & Associates provides an interesting measure of retirement planning engagement – the percentage of workers having tried to calculate how much money they need to save for a comfortable retirement. Averaging data between 2007-2011 indicates that about 45% have tried to calculate their needs and are at least thinking about retirement. Certainly can’t say if these are the same folks who are still shopping for holiday gifts – but the proportion of people thinking about retirement is eerily similar to the proportion of us still scurrying from store to store.

Longevity takes planning. Retirement planning requires investment today for security tomorrow. Health takes planning and investment too. Eating well, exercising often and engaging in healthy behaviors improve the chances of well-being tomorrow. Current models that segment the population based upon age, gender, life stage and socio-economic status alone may not be altogether wrong, but they may be missing something less obvious but readily evident in holiday shopping.

Eventually holiday shopping does get done – not sure that can be said for retirement planning and certainly not for healthy behaviors. So what can financial services, employers and health insurers learn from holiday shopping? Unlike the facts and fear relied upon by health and wealth service providers to incentivize behavior, holiday shopping relies on soft cues that produce predictable outcomes. These include:

  • Ritual: holiday shopping is a ritual that few people need to have explained. Ritual by definition is outwardly simple. Experienced from a young age regular and celebrated activities are readily understood and repeated. This is not novel for finance, just forgotten. Whatever happened to the Christmas Club? Many older baby boomers may remember the weekly $1, $2 or even $5 per week payments at the bank teller window and the coupon book showing your progress until receiving a check at year end...not to mention the lollipop. Likewise healthy behaviors begin at home, often with three opportunities a day – breakfast, lunch and dinner.
  • Reinforcement: when everyone is doing the same thing, it becomes a norm that very few will deviate. Nearly everyone exchanges a gift or a smile during the holiday season regardless of their background. Christakis and Fowler in their great book Connected show that social networks (the people we used to call friends and acquaintances before social media) reflect and reinforce good and bad behaviors. Family, friends, fellow employees can impact everything from savings plan participation rates to healthy behaviors in the company cafeteria.
  • Responsibility: ultimately we get our holiday shopping done because we don’t want to disappoint – not us – but others. Adequate retirement planning and health behavior are about more than our own security and vitality, they are about our responsibility to the people we care about. Retirement planning and healthy behaviors can be redefined as something we give others – to spouses and adult children – so they need not worry about our financial security in old age or about extended caregiving due to a chronic condition that might have been better managed.

Many people planning for their futures have the best of intentions, yet most procrastinate. Successful consumer engagement strategies in health and wealth requires far more than brochures, flashy website content or another ‘product’ it requires the soft nudges seen in other consumer behaviors that may not seem rational but make sense all year.


What Holiday Shopping Tells...

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