Will the election results trigger holiday spending?

Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz and Lauren Zumbach
Chicago Tribune

Chicago — After Thanksgiving — assuming families survive the political standoffs expected to plague dinner tables across the country — America will officially launch its annual shopping spree, saddled not only with turkey hangover this year but also election malaise.

As the nation tries to transition from rancor to merriment, retailers are watching to see if the feelings of doom or elation that have divided the populace will affect how people spend during the industry’s most critical quarter.

Historically, elections haven’t had much impact on consumer spending, but experts say this election, extraordinary for the shock of Donald Trump’s long-shot win as well as the viciousness of the rhetoric, could be different.

Will optimistic Trump supporters race to the mall? Will grieving Hillary Clinton supporters opt to stay curled in balls of despair? Will the uncertainty of what may come in the Trump era cause everyone to cut back their shopping lists? Will eggnog have a good year?

No one knows, of course, but Eileen Knauff, for one, expects to fill her shopping basket a bit differently.

Knauff, 22, who lives in suburban Chicago, did not sink into the mass depression that consumed many of her friends after Trump’s surprise win. But as she hits the stores for holiday shopping, she plans to keep those friends, many of them in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and concerned their rights are at risk, in mind.

“I’m trying to get more meaningful gifts, something I know they’ll appreciate,” said Knauff, who is working as a restaurant hostess while she applies to graduate school.

“Make the holidays as good as can be before everything goes south.”

The vast majority of Americans — 81 percent — said in a survey a day after the election that the result won’t change their planned holiday spending, as most believed the economic impact of Trump’s policies won’t be felt until next year, according to Conlumino, a research agency and consulting firm focused on retail and consumer behavior.

Holiday shopping forecasts had been positive pre-election, thanks to strong economic indicators including low unemployment rates, positive wage growth and an overall stability of commodity prices, like gas and food, that offset increases in health care costs, said Steve Barr, U.S. retail leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

PwC, which in a survey found that Americans expected to spend 10 percent more this year than last, was anticipating the best holiday season since the start of the Great Recession.

In deep blue Chicago, some retailers said obsessive focus on the election and the grim mood in its aftermath kept shops quiet in the days surrounding Nov. 8.

Albert Karoll, owner of Richard Bennett Custom Tailors & Shirtmakers, was optimistic that funk would lift, despite a “palpable sense, even among clients that are Republican voters, that damage has been done to the national psyche that may not heal so quickly.”

The wound might even spur more buying, he said.

“I think there’s a lot of escapism going on, no matter what side of the fence you were on,” he said.

Sixty miles south in Kankakee County, where a majority of voters backed Trump, some consumers said they are cautiously optimistic but expect business as usual when it comes to shopping.

Gene and Sue Lincoln, 71, of nearby Momence, said they were “feeling pretty good” about the election outcome while recently walking around an area mall.

“I think he’s got the business sense,” Sue Lincoln said of the president-elect.

Still, “I’m not going out and making any big purchases,” said Gene Lincoln, who with his wife ran a newspaper before their daughter took the helm. “We’re just trying to get a head start on Christmas for the grandkids.”

Whether shopping to fight grief actually works is another question.

A 2014 study found that it can — to a point.

In the research, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, people were run through several experiments in which they were shown film clips to make them sad and then put in situations where they could shop or not. Those who did shop reported feeling less sad afterward, though the study didn’t examine long-term effects. The thinking is that people feel sad because they feel out of control, and making choices — which are in abundance at the mall — restores that control.

But sadness is not the only feeling gripping Trump’s opponents, said study co-author Scott Rick, associate professor of marketing at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

“There’s anger, fear, anxiety, disgust, dread,” said Rick, who is not a Trump fan. “It’s a whole rich rainbow of bad feelings, and they’re not fleeting.”

Rick’s experiments found shopping did not ameliorate feelings of anger, which the researchers induced in subjects by showing film clips depicting bullying. The difference between sadness and anger, he said, is that sadness is generally a reaction to uncontrollable forces in the environment, like disease, while anger is often in response to an interpersonal assault.

More than shopping, grieving Clinton supporters may find relief in donating to charities whose causes they worry are at risk, Rick said.

“That sounds like a very productive version of retail therapy for people feeling the Trump blues,” he said.

Some shoppers opposed to some of Trump’s views say the main difference in their consumption habits this year is that they are avoiding brands they associate with him.

Pooja Kansal, 27, said she owns Ivanka Trump boots but never plans on buying that brand again. Kansal, who splits her time between her fiance’s home in Chicago and her hometown of Munster, Ind., is of Indian descent, and said reports of hate crimes have made her anxious.

“I have always cared about politics but always had the sense that things would be OK,” said Kansal, who recently graduated from law school and is studying for the bar. “Now I feel concerned for my safety and my family’s safety.”

As she rested on a bench at a downtown Chicago mall with a shopping bag, Samina Khan, 62, said she doesn’t expect the election to change her shopping habits this year, but it could change whether she spends her money in the U.S. at all.

She and her husband, Sameeh Khan, lived outside Chicago for 15 years and had four kids there before moving back to their native Pakistan in 1988, and she said they return to the area often to visit family and friends.

But the couple, who said they never before felt like foreigners, feel people are colder to them now, and suspect it is driven by Trump’s proposed temporary ban on Muslims and rising expression of anti-immigrant sentiment. The couple described how Sameeh Khan, a 71-year-old physician, was pulled from the security line at the airport for a 30-minute screening.

“If they keep doing this, who will want to come?” Samina Khan said.

Moneca Soto, 31, said she isn’t letting the election outcome drain her holiday cheer.

A hairstylist and mom to an 8-month-old son and 3-year-old daughter, Soto is an ear for customers despairing about Trump’s win. While Soto believes Trump should “bring some positivity” to the nation in the face of reports of harassment and hate speech following his election, she wants to give him a chance. Her goal is to remind people to keep living their lives.

“It’s up to you how you handle it,” Soto said. “I’m still going to bring Christmas in.”