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US election likely to have minor impact on consumer spending – survey

The U.S. presidential election in November is expected to have a minor impact on consumer discretionary spending over the next three months but the coronavirus crisis continues to weigh heavily on people's minds and purchasing decisions, according to a new survey by 451 Research, an offering of S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Nearly 75% of survey respondents said the Nov. 3 election would have no impact on their spending for the next 90 days. But looking at the remainder of the respondent pool, more people expect to cut back spending rather than spend more as the critical holiday season kicks into full swing. The proportion of consumers expecting to decrease their spending in the coming months due to the election was 16.4%, more than three times the number of consumers who said they intend to spend more, which came in at 4.5%.

"For a lot of people, [the election] is a very meaningful event every four years and consequential, but I think in the end, the majority of households don't really spend a lot of time thinking about it day to day between their jobs, their families," said Joshua Levine, senior research analyst for digital economics at 451 Research, in an interview. "It's their personal finances that count, and the economy and their job situation."

The Voice of the Customer: Macroeconomic Outlook, Consumer Spending survey, completed between Aug. 31 and Sept. 21, is based on about 1,000 responses from consumers primarily in the U.S. and Canada. The survey respondents' households tended to have higher incomes, with about half reporting that they made more than $125,000 annually.

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Cautious, homebound consumers

While the election isn't playing a major role in consumer spending decisions, concerns over the coronavirus and the economy continue to factor significantly, according to the survey. More than 61% of survey respondents said staying home more due to the virus was the biggest reason why they plan to spend less over the next 90 days compared to the previous 90 days.

About 47% of respondents said they anticipate their overall spending over the next 90 days will be less than what they spent last year while 33.2% said they expect their spending will remain the same as last year. Those figures actually appear to be an improvement from the previous edition of the Voice of the Consumer survey responses collected April 30-May 18, when 67% of survey respondents said they planned to pull back their spending over the next 90 days compared with the same period in 2019.

"The pandemic throws in such a big X factor," Levine said.

Similarly, the Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index shows a rebound for September after dropping for the past two months but it is still trending at pre-pandemic levels.

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READ MORE: Sign up for our weekly election newsletter here, and read our latest coverage here.

Consumers' tendency to stay at home more during the pandemic could behoove companies like Walmart Inc., Amazon.com Inc. and other retailers that have benefited from consumers hunkering down at home and buying online.

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Consumers remain wary about the economy. More than 63% of recipients said they believe the U.S. economy will stay the same or worsen over the next 90 days while 36.6% believe the economy will improve over the next three months.

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The ups and downs of the stock market also factor into consumer sentiment. About 40% of respondents said they were less confident in the U.S. stock market than compared with 90 days ago while 37.9% said there was no change in their sentiment about the market. About 17% stated that they were more confident than 90 days ago.

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Job impact

Despite consumers' concerns with the coronavirus and the economy, respondents said the virus has had no impact on their employment situation. More than 76% said the coronavirus outbreak has not changed their employment status while 15% said they were employed but earning less due to the outbreak. About 4% said they were now unemployed as a result of the outbreak.

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But most respondents had at least some concern about losing their job or someone in their family losing their job due to layoffs, closings, downsizing and other company cutbacks.

Nearly 40% said they worried "only a little," while 17.5% worried "quite a bit" and 8% worried a great deal.

Scaling back

Consumers plan to pull back on spending in hard-hit sectors such as travel, dining establishments and apparel as the coronavirus rages on but spend more on home improvement, food and healthcare.

About half of respondents said they will spend less on vacations and travel over the next 90 days compared to the previous 90 days. That is unlikely to bode well for companies like Booking Holdings Inc. and Expedia Group Inc. that have seen sales slide as consumers canceled vacations and travel plans.

About 44% of survey respondents said they will spend less on dining out at restaurants over the next three months, while 32.7% will spend less on sporting events and 32.1% will spend less on going to the movie theater. In addition, as consumers work from home and steer clear of offices, they are less likely to spend money on new clothes. Nearly 27% of respondents plan to spend less on apparel.

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The home improvement sector dominated by companies like Home Depot Inc. and Lowe's Cos. Inc. remains a bright spot for consumer spending. Nearly 47% of consumers plan to spend more money over the next 90 days on household repairs and improvements while 26% will spend more on groceries and 19.2% will spend more on restaurants. About 18% will spend more on healthcare expenses.

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