Overall Member Spending Patterns in 2020 with a close look at the Holiday Season

consumer optimism

At risk of stating the obvious, the COVID-19 pandemic transformed consumer spending habits in 2020. Spending patterns remained dynamic throughout the year as consumers moved through panic-buying, shifted their spending into different categories and used new channels to meet their needs. As it turned out, a life lived mostly at home rapidly changed where and how consumers allocated their resources.

Through its collective client base of credit unions throughout the U.S., CU Rise Analytics analyzed the spending patterns of more than 1 million credit union members during 2020.  Recently, it took a closer look at holiday spending compared against 2019, when consumer optimism remained high, and thoughts of a worldwide pandemic were more science fiction musings. Before we dig in to the changes in holiday spending behavior, let’s look at the overall yearly trends.


As clearly indicated in the above chart, average member spending plummeted in March and April as coronavirus cases spread and widespread fear set in. Though overall spending decreased dramatically, few will forget the unevenness of the impact, as store shelves remained barren of hand sanitizer, toilet paper and many cleaning products for months to come. As those able to stockpile home goods significantly increased spending there, other categories such as travel and restaurants saw massive declines.

Toward the fall, an infusion of stimulus dollars and loosening of some restrictions increased spending, which peaked in October. The highest spending month of the year also coincided with a new, later date for Amazon Prime Day on Oct. 13 and 14, where third-party sellers (mainly small and medium-sized businesses) saw a record-breaking $3.5 billion in worldwide sales. Total Prime Day transactions increased by nearly 50% over 2019.

As the U.S. headed into winter, cases of the coronavirus surged and stimulus funds depleted. Restrictions tightened, Americans were encouraged to stay home and not gather with family, and spending declined to end-of-spring levels.

When evaluating category-level transactional data, CU Rise data scientists analyzed approximately 45 merchant categories to determine the levels of spending. Then, comparisons were made between 2020 and 2019 data to determine which categories experienced the most change under pandemic conditions. The following chart indicates the most impacted sectors.


Biggest increases:

  • Total spend at Amazon increased by 54%, with average spend per person increasing by 43%
  • Computer electronics/software spend increased by 50% and ticket size increased by 56%
  • Home supply spend increased by more than 30%
  • Grocery spend was up 24% for the year, driven in-part by the panic-buying of March, April and May, which leveled off during the remainder of the year.

Biggest decreases:

  • Travel and Tourism total spend decreased by 52% and avg. spend decreased by 22%; ticket size decreased by 11%
  • Memberships Clubs (i.e., golf and sports) spend decreased by 40%
  • Gas total and avg. spend decreased by 25%
  • Overall restaurant spending declined by 15%.


Holiday Spending in 2020

Holiday spending in the U.S. typically begins in early November, and it’s a bustling time for retailers, restaurants and other merchants. In 2020, this was another place the coronavirus left a visible mark.

Far fewer people visited stores in-person and members continued the pattern of purchasing online. To support the now-declining overall consumer spending (and resulting credit card interchange income) toward the end of the year, many credit unions incentivized members with card offers around traditionally key shopping days such as Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Christmas.

When we look at the holiday spending patterns in November and December of 2020, we see that:

  • November’s total spend increased by 7% over 2019; and the average spend per member increased by 3%
  • Both spending and the number of transactions increased by 30% on Thanksgiving Day over 2019. This is in line with national trends that set record levels of spending on Thanksgiving Day as many Americans stayed out of shopping centers and made purchases on their smartphones.
  • Interestingly, the Thanksgiving shopping spree didn’t continue throughout Thanksgiving weekend. Members’ Black Friday spending was down slightly by 2% overall and an average 5% per member, which also reflected national trends that disappointed retailers on a day usually marked by buying frenzy.
  • Spending in December 2020 slightly decreased by 1% compared to 2019, likely due to early holiday promotions and continued economic uncertainty. The highest spending day of the month was December 29, with an increase of 54% over 2019.
  • When looking at the combined November and December spending season, the average member spending saw a slight boost over 2019.


Positively Impacted Merchant Categories: 2020 Holidays

  • Amazon spend was up 51%; with a quarter of members’ total Amazon spending in 2020 occurring during the holidays.
  • Sporting goods stores spend increased 49%
  • Home supply and warehouse stores spend increased 46%
  • Wholesale clubs (such as Costco and Sam’s Club) spend increased 30%
  • Electronics stores (such as Best Buy and Apple) spend increased 24%


Negatively Impacted Merchant Categories: 2020 Holidays

  • Travel spending decreased by 62%
  • Spending in the Hotel/Accommodations sector decreased by 50%
  • As fewer members travelled during the holidays, corresponding spending on gas decreased by 25%.
  • Barber and beauty shops spend decreased by 20%
  • Restaurant spend decreased by 15%


When looking back on the 2020 spending data, though consumer behavior regularly shifted with the fluctuating environment, the pandemic created clear “winners and losers” on the receiving end of members’ dollars. The challenging, unique climate made a clear and strong case that each credit union should be enabled to implement data driven strategy.

The ability to continuously synthesize data across member segment, transaction types, spending growth and decline, channel usage and industry metrics builds a vastly more detailed picture of trends to which credit unions can respond. (Like one east-coast credit union did when it rolled out holiday spending offers in targeted merchant categories, increasing the overall spend on its branded credit cards by 25%, and a whopping 75% in the targeted categories!).

The lessons of 2020 are far from over and there are more to come in 2021.  With much still in flux, data insights can provide consistent direction amidst the winds of change.