There’s no topic our clients and partners ask us about more today than the impact and concerns of tariff policies among American consumers. Indeed, few issues affect a broader array of industries – not just obvious categories like electronics or retail, where the impact is direct – but even areas like food service or travel, where the trickle-down implications on disposable income rear their ugly heads. As the important holiday shopping season approaches, keeping a vigilant eye on this issue is more critical than ever.
CivicScience has been tracking tariff concerns and spending implications among U.S. adults on a daily basis since June of this year. Today, we are publishing the first of what will be an ongoing series of monthly reports on these topics, looking not only at trends in attitudes and behaviors but also analyzing relevant consumer subgroups by demographic and other attributes. CivicScience clients will have access to daily results and alerts in real-time, along with more detailed analysis by spending category, industry, and even individual consumer brands.
Concerns and Implications of Tariffs are On the Rise
The CivicScience Tariff Monitor™ looks at two questions, each asked to a representative sample of U.S. adults by demography and geography.
Trade Policy and Tariff Concerns
The first question gauges overall concern about the impact of trade policies and tariffs on household expenses:
For the month of August 2019, the numbers are nearly equally split. The percentage of U.S. adults who say they are “very concerned” sits at 33%, while those who are “somewhat concerned” represent 33% of respondents, and with those who are “not all concerned” at 34%.
When we look at the results over time, however, a more interesting story emerges:
When we first measured this topic in June, 30% of Americans were “very concerned,” with 38% expressing no concern at all. The “very concerned” group actually fell in July, to just 27%, before leaping six points to 33% by the end of August. These numbers are consistent with worsening overall consumer confidence evidenced in the Microsoft-CivicScience Economic Sentiment Index.
Those who are “very concerned” about trade policies and tariffs are much more likely to be female, over the age of 54, city-dwellers, and people making less than $75,000 in household income. Education level had no significant impact on responses. As with most issues today, political affiliation creates a major effect. Only 11% of Republicans identify as “very concerned,” compared to 55% of Democrats and 34% of Independents.
Trade Policies and Tariff Impact on Spending
The second question looks at the direct impact of trade policies and tariffs on consumer household spending:
For the month of August, 23% of U.S. adults reported some decrease in purchase behavior due to tariff-related increases in the costs of goods. Fourteen percent are spending more because of rising prices, and 63% – a clear majority – say they have not noticed any difference.
Again, looking at the numbers over time reveals a notable and steady trend:
In the first month of research, 32% of respondents reported either cutting back on purchases or experiencing higher household expenses. By July, that number climbed to 35%, and by August it reached 37%. While the movement wasn’t as dramatic as the concern question, the pattern is clear.
Similar to the concern question, women are far more likely to be reporting cutbacks in purchases or increases in spending as a result of tariffs, particularly troubling given the prominent role female heads of household play in many areas of retail.
The differences aren’t quite as dramatic as the concern question, by age or urbanicity, but the same income break (Under $75K) is evident. Black and Hispanic households are significantly more likely to be reporting reduced purchases.
Again, we saw stark differences by political affiliation. In August, 87% of Republicans said they’ve noticed no difference, compared to just 48% of Democrats, and 53% of Independents. This raises the question of whether these individuals are, in fact, noticing (or not) the tariff implications or whether their political affiliation is affecting their overall financial optimism/pessimism. Either way, it appears to be affecting their behaviors differently, and that’s what should matter to commercial enterprises.
Americans are clearly beginning to feel the strains of trade policies and tariffs on their household spending and overall optimism. It will be critical over the coming months to see if these strains worsen or reach a point of equilibrium, with some Americans being affected while others are not.
Stay tuned for our upcoming reports to find out.