The holidays are supposed to be a season of good tidings and joy, but for a good number of Americans, shopping during the end of the year is a source only of elevated blood pressure. That's according to new research from digital UX analytics company ContentSquare, which surveyed 1,600 Americans ages 18 to 65 regarding their seasonal moods.

The severity of the stress problem

ContentSquare had assumed that, with the onset of online shopping, stress among shoppers would decrease. But the company found that, overall, one out of 5 people (21 percent) were stressed. Additionally, while the majority of stressed respondents said their stress has gone down (8 percent) or stayed the same (52 percent), 40 percent of people experiencing stress said their stress has increased since last year. The biggest factor cited for that stress was not having enough money.

But Jonathan Cherki, ContentSquare's founder and CEO, offers more insight:

"Some consumers are innately stressed about holiday shopping, but a lot of them get stressed as a result of bad digital experiences: when they are looking for something specific and they can't find it, or when they are bombarded with too many options, or when they carefully fill their digital cart with items and then have them suddenly disappear."

Negative experiences that affect holiday shopping stress might be on the rise because, as e-commerce grows, companies might be jumping on the online bandwagon without first really strategizing about or identifying what they need to do to make the entire transaction process enjoyable. Cherki asserts that the survey results prove that simply being online and available isn't enough as a retailer. You have to provide a wonderful experience, too.

Moods vary depending on who's shopping and who the gift recipients are

ContentSquare's data shows that 57 percent of the people who noted stress or frustration during the holiday season are female.

"Usually women are the ones planning for the big picture, and on top of buying all the gifts, they are also busy making sure they aren't forgetting anyone and that they are still getting a good deal. That can lead to a lot of stress."

Age is also a factor in stress levels. People ages 45 to 60 are the most stressed (21.8 percent), followed by those ages 30 to 44 (21.5 percent) and those ages 18 to 29 (21.3 percent). Respondents age 60 or older were the least stressed (20.8). Cultural factors might be influencers here. For example, middle-aged online shoppers are pretty tech-savvy, but they weren't brought up online like Millennials or Gen-Zers were, and they also might feel more responsible for buying for more people, as they're interacting with parents, friends, partners, children, and grandchildren.

People are happiest to buy for friends (23 percent). But buying for kids evokes the most excitement (30 percent).

"People are faster to buy and less hesitant when buying for children in part because it is an ongoing activity (as they grow they outgrow their clothes and shoes, and are constantly getting new ones) and in part because it comes with a feeling of satisfaction that you are investing your money in the right people."

Buying for parents makes most people happy (18 percent), but it also makes a decent number sad (12 percent) and frustrated (11 percent). That might be because people become hyperaware that the number of holidays left with their parents is dwindling, or because they find it hard to find something that's impressive or that the parents haven't acquired already.

What you can do to cut the anxiety

Despite the finding that four out of 10 people reporting stress feel their stress has gone up from a year ago, Cherki is confident that, with the right approach, online retailers actually can help bring more joy to shoppers.

"Shopping in stores can be a very overwhelming period this time of year with the lights, the noise, and the endless options. Shopping online, however, is under your control. You decide when, where, in what setting, and on what device. And when it's too much, you can decide to stop and continue later. This comfort is increasing levels of happiness around holiday shopping, and people are feeling more calm and relaxed than ever."

The numbers back Cherki up. Forty-seven percent of ContentSquare's survey respondents said shopping online actually improved their mood.

Cherki says there are four big things online retailers can do to keep stress low for shoppers.

  1. Make sure shoppers can filter well (e.g., price, category, "gifts for x," etc.).
  2. Offer reassuring elements such as clear shipping information and return policies, including a breakdown of time to ship and time to receive.
  3. Improve the search feature so people can find specific things they want more easily.
  4. Simplify the checkout process as much as possible, through features such as guest checkout and autofill for addresses and by reducing the number of screens and clicks needed to complete the purchase.

Cherki also maintains that it's critical to look at holiday moods and shopping behavior, because it can serve as a road map for the entire next year. By analyzing this data, you can understand your customers better, see where their moods are changing, and make positive changes to accommodate buyers. Those changes might take some resources to initiate, but your diligence and timely responsiveness likely will offer a big gift to your long-term bottom line.