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How Rural Americans Shop for the Holidays

This piece was originally written as part of my work for Hirons’ Rural Reach program and was published here.

Holiday shopping season and its many, many advertising campaigns are upon us. As part of Hirons’ Rural Reach program, we believe it is important to engage rural communities, and the biggest shopping season of the year is no exception to that rule. So, how do these communities get their gift shopping done, and what should marketers be doing to take their purchase behaviors into account?

First, embrace the “early” start of seasonal sales.

While some of us may have been bah humbug-ing when we saw the first holiday decorations hit stores around Halloween, the trend of an early roll-out of holiday items doesn’t appear to be going anywhere any time soon. Katherine Cullen, senior director of consumer and industry insights for the National Retail Federation, says that what we often still perceive as “early” shopping has been a consistent trend for the last 15 years. Having holiday gifts and décor available earlier allows families with tighter budgets to spread out their spending.

This can be seen as particularly important for rural families, who are statistically more likely to be price sensitive than their urban or suburban counterparts, according to this article from Digital Commerce 360. In 2018, nearly one out of five small town residents said they would cut back on holiday shopping. On average, these individuals planned to spend about $984 on the holidays, compared with $1,336 for people living in urban areas.

Roughly 40 percent of consumers begin their holiday shopping before Halloween, according to the National Retail Federation‘s2019 holiday forecast. Further, a full 19 percent are “early bird” shoppers who started in September or earlier. Personally, I can speak to the fact that members of my rural area-dwelling family start asking for my wish list when Halloween costumes are still on my mind so that there’s time to space out the purchases.

Second, it should be an experience, not a chore.

For many rural people, holiday shopping is considered a fun activity, rather than just something to be done. Forty-three percent of rural Americans said they enjoy shopping, compared to 40 percent of suburban shoppers and 38 percent of urban shoppers.

And, while no one likes a long line, the same study showed that rural Americans tend to have a greater tolerance for waiting to check out than city-dwellers. If rural shoppers do abandon a line, they’re more likely to try hitting up a different store for the same item than giving up altogether or going online.

This can likely be attributed to the fact that rural families are often traveling greater distances to their nearest shopping centers. More than 70 percent of rural consumers typically travel at least 20 minutes just to be able to make their everyday purchases, and stores that offer a decent selection of holiday gifts are often even harder to find.

Retailers have struggled to adapt to the changing ways in which Americans shop thanks to advances in technology, a trend evidenced by a number of previously hopping shopping centers that now sit empty. The impact of the so-called “retail apocalypse” has hit rural communities particularly hard, forcing rural families to seek alternate shopping methods or travel further to reach stores.

As marketers, it’s important for us to understand the different ways in which demographic groups make their purchases. This allows us to tailor both our external advertising campaigns and in-store promotions to connect with holiday shoppers. Understanding our audiences can help us turn perpetual “browsers” into paying customers.

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