I’m giving my first conference speech in almost two years – live and in person – next week. 

And I’m psyched. 

I’ve done more laptop-speaking gigs than I can count since COVID started, but there’s nothing like doing it in front of a three-dimensional audience. Zoom speeches are soul-sucking, by comparison.  

There’s no substitute for nonverbal feedback. I’m not one to read from a script or rehearse all that much, so I need reactions from the crowd to figure out if I should stay on a given topic or pivot, whether they dig my jokes, or whether they’re bored and reading email (everyone is reading email on a Zoom meeting, let’s be honest).   

I won’t even mind that they’re wearing masks. Eye contact is better than nothing. 

The conference is called TMRE and I only mention that because the last time I spoke at this event, I stood up while the host was introducing me and promptly ripped my pants from my ass to the back of my knee. I wrote about it, in case you missed it (warning: there’s a picture).

I’m co-presenting this time with a dude named Matt Cahill, the research guru from McDonald’s. How the Golden Arches navigated the pandemic with flying colors is the kind of thing they’ll teach MBA classes about. They’ve deftly avoided all three horsemen of the consumer apocalypse – COVID, the volatility of economic sentiment, and political tribalism – all while crushing their financial performance. McDonald’s never gets enough credit.

The biggest headline is that the conference is in Nashville and – gasp! – I’ve never been to Nashville, easily the most famous city still on my bucket list. Appalling, I know, especially considering how much I’m into music. And drinking. And hot chicken. 

Oh, and we’re hosting a party on Broadway. You’re all invited. 

In other news, Season Two of my mom’s all-time favorite podcast launched this week. I was joined by Tony Fratto, former Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, White House press briefer, CNBC talking head, and wildly successful entrepreneur. We waxed philosophical about all sorts of economy stuff.

And next week is my birthday. I’m turning 36 again. 

So, yeah, this entire prologue was just one big programming announcement.

It gets better, I promise. 

Here’s what we’re seeing:

Consumer confidence ticked up slightly this week on the heels of the new infrastructure deal and last week’s jobs report. Let’s not uncork any champagne bottles just yet. People still have a grim outlook for the economy and this week’s inflation numbers won’t exactly help things. But for a few days, anyway, people were feeling a bit better. Confidence in making major purchases saw a significant jump, which might merely be wishful thinking as Black Friday nears. In any event, it’s nice to see the first notable improvement since June. 

COVID caution appears to be waning. One thing I believe but can’t prove is a causal connection between improved economic sentiment and declining fears about COVID – but I guarantee you they’re correlated. Comfort doing most out-of-home activities rose considerably over the past two weeks – with the lone exception being travel – as vaccination rates hit new highs and the approval of vaccines for children was realized. Stay vigilant, folks, but maybe this is a turning point.

That said, the majority of young kids may not get vaccinated for COVID. In one of the more surprising studies we’ve done lately, only 37% of parents with children aged 5-11 are planning to get their kids vaxxed and another 10% are on the fence. Not surprising is that the results are heavily skewed by whether the parents themselves have been vaccinated. The U.S. Northeast is the only region where a plurality of parents intends to vaccinate their young kids. Driving the overall hesitancy is a perceived lack of sufficient testing to date. It will take some political guile to advocate for mandating vaccines in schools with numbers like these.

Plans to shop in stores on Black Friday are almost back to pre-pandemic levels and Gen Z is fueling the revival. That’s it. That’s the story. Wait, one more thing from this study: While 74% of Americans plan to do some of their holiday shopping at small businesses, that number is much smaller among Black Friday shoppers. This is your annual reminder to support your local, independent businesses, my friends. 

There are few things Americans support more than retailers closing for Thanksgiving. Eighty-three percent to 5%. That’s the difference between support and opposition. A nearly equal percentage (80%) say they are likely to shop at stores that close on Turkey Day. It crosses every income and age group (though Gen Z is slightly less passionate about it). It’s equally true among Target shoppers and Walmart shoppers. It makes you wonder why anyone stays open. Thanksgiving is for watching football. I mean, family.

Americans are divided, however, on what to do with their pets when they travel. This study was just fun – and maybe relevant if you’re in the travel or hospitality business. Thirteen percent of pet owners became new pet owners since the beginning of the pandemic, including a whopping 45% of Gen Z. And pets have a big impact on how, or even if, people choose to travel. Eight percent of pet owners say they definitely won’t travel for the holidays this year because of a pet. What’s most notable to me is how evenly mixed people are on whether to travel with their pets, board them, or do something else when they travel during the holidays. Income is a clear factor. 

  Other studies from this week:  

This week’s popular questions:

Answer Key: No, I have enough vices; Sides; Subtitles for sure; Only if I go somewhere cool like Nashville; A few, yes.

Hoping you’re well.