Holiday Shopping Trends 2021


At the EFMP our partner agencies like to be informed of the trends that effect our sectors. The holiday season is, without a doubt, the most important period for the retail industry. Comprising the two months of November and December, many retailers often spend the bulk of their year preparing and planning for the frenzy of holiday shopping.  In light of retail’s huge 2020 holiday season, which showed record breaking numbers - at least $1 billion was spent per day by consumers in the US during the last two months of the year -, all the signs are pointing to an equally mammoth period in 2021. Deloitte predicts an increase of between 7 and 9% in US holiday sales this year, which would bring total sales to something like $1.3 trillion.

With this year and last being marked by the unpredictability of the COVID-19 pandemic, the pivotal holiday shopping period calls for a contradictory mix of meticulous planning and extreme flexibility: retailers need to properly prepare for the massive upswing in activity while simultaneously being ready for anything as trends and behaviour can change from one week to the next.

There are a number of trends that will define the holiday season this year, as well as a whole host of challenges and opportunities that will mean retailers must stay constantly on top of things in the lead up to the end of 2021.

Bain & Company predicted a 7% growth of holiday sales in 2021 and identified several opportunities for the retail sector, namely inflation rates, increased employment levels, positive wage growth, increased savings and more credit availability along with the probability of pent-up demand. However, this is countered by several sizable obstacles, most notably the ongoing shipping crisis and supply chain problems caused by the pandemic. Retailers will need to work extra hard to find solutions to problems of product unavailability and delayed shipments. This is combined with a potential fourth wave of Covid and consequent lockdowns and a general reduction in labour supply. With proper planning and an adaptable structure, however, retailers can face these challenges head on and still benefit from a profitable holiday season, particularly if they are aware of the holiday shopping trends for 2021.

Which trends will impact the holiday season in retail?

As the year’s biggest retail period approaches, we can expect to see a number of trends shaping the industry. 

Early shoppers

Following on from last year in which, according to the National Retail Federation, holiday sales increased 8% in November compared to 2019, holiday shopping is expected to start early in 2021. This is mainly due to a general awareness of supply chain issues: consumers expect delays and, as a result, a survey by Deloitte found that shoppers are now starting to plan their holiday spending before Thanksgiving, which, along with Black Friday, has historically been the beginning of the festive period. 

And it’s not just customers extending the holiday season, retailers have caught on to the value of going after sales in the early stages of the period, when they can target specific segments and there is less competition. Many retailers now begin promoting holiday purchases throughout November, with promotions and advertising often beginning just after Halloween in the UK. Early shoppers, data shows, are more likely to both spend more and make repeat purchases. 

Omnichannel product discovery 

With shopping high on the agenda for many around the holiday season, it’s a great time for brand and product discovery with consumers frequently getting out of their retail comfort zone and breaking their usual purchasing habits to buy gifts. With consumers spending more and more time thinking over and researching their holiday buys, they’re increasingly likely to discover and buy from brands that are new to them. This trend has been greatly encouraged by the growth in omnichannel shopping, with a survey by Criteo indicating that consumers discover products via a mixture of search engines, physical stores, brand sites and apps, retail sites and apps and online ads. There’s never been so many ways to reach potential customers, with video advertising also seeing a huge increase in success; another survey by Criteo showed that 50% of frequent users of video services purchase products and services they see in targeted video ads and 47% will recommend them to friends or family. 


More than just a buzzword, sustainable retail has become a trend in its own right and shows no signs of slowing down this holiday season. Consumers, particularly Gen Z and millennials, are demanding more transparency and more environmental consciousness from brands and are willing to pay for those that align most with their values. In the CGS Retail and Sustainability Survey, more than half of U.S respondents said they would pay more for a sustainable option. A consequence of the sustainability trend is a boom in the resale and second-hand markets, with a report by ThredUp showing that 33 million people bought used clothes for the first time in 2020.  This growing market is ripe for opportunity and is expected to reach $52 billion by 2023, doubling its current size. New initiatives such as subscription rental services (with US retail giants Macy’s and Urban Outfitters having launched these), buy-back programs and trade-ins are becoming increasingly popular on the mainstream market and present a whole host of advantages for both retailers and consumers, as well as for the planet.

Online vs In-store: trends pushing customer behaviour

Undoubtedly, the pandemic gave the already booming e-commerce industry a boost, particularly in the holiday season, with data from Criterio showing online sales up 22% year over year in December 2020 - a new record. The increase in e-commerce shows no signs of slowing down and online sales are expected to be high this holiday season: in July 2021 global e-commerce sales were 24% higher than in 2019, comprising a 35% increase in the Americas, 18% in EMEA and 22% in Asia Pacific.


Brick and mortar shops have traditionally been at war with online retailers. Recently, however, the two have put aside their weapons and begun working in harmony. One interesting pandemic consequence was the role reversal of online and in-store shopping: since being in a physical store was not allowed, digital shopping adapted to help consumers replicate the in-store experience at home. Customers enjoyed features such as augmented reality fitting rooms and customised virtual recommendations from sales associates via retailers’ increasingly sophisticated apps and websites. Shops, on the other hand, became the site of one of 2020’s biggest retail trends: Buy Online Pick Up in Store.


Curbside Pickup and ‘Buy Online Pickup In Store’ (BOPIS)


Convenience has always been a priority for consumers, a fact that has been reinforced by the lasting popularity of the curbside pickup and BOPIS pandemic trends. As restrictions limited in-store shopping throughout 2020, Click and Collect sales almost doubled last year compared to 2019. The trend is predicted to keep growing in 2021 even as pandemic restrictions ease, as consumers continue with their newly developed shopping habits; National Retail Federation data showed that 70% of customers said that this style of shopping improved their experience as it was more convenient. As a consequence, however, consumers are often extending their holiday purchasing until just days before Christmas, with last-minute gift buying peaking on December 23 of last year, putting extra pressure on retailers to have their websites running smoothly and their logistics ready to adapt.   


With a new reality blossoming, both online and in-store shopping have an important part to play in the customer experience. With pandemic consequences still having serious effects, customer behaviour is reflecting the unpredictability of the times and, as a result, having an omnichannel strategy is increasingly vital for retailers. 


The ‘phygital’ trend


The 2021 holiday season is expected to show an increase in the ‘phygital’ retail trend, aka using technology to bridge the gap between the digital and physical worlds, primarily via omnichannel experiences. Incorporating ‘phygital’ technology in-store allows customers to have the best of both worlds: the convenience of online shopping combined with great in-store experiences, and is being employed by some of the key industry players as a strategy to get customers back into shops. Examples of the new technology include in-store QR codes to help customers learn more about the products in-store, smart self-checkout, which allows them to skip paying with a cashier altogether, online inventory checks and even queue monitors, which let people book their spot in the line to pay before they’ve even entered the store. 


The Future of Black Friday

In line with the early shopping trend, Black Friday is also being rolled out earlier and extending over week- or month-long periods rather than just for one day. In 2020, in an attempt to temper the mass rush of shoppers on Black Friday, retailers started to promote their Black Friday deals as early as October and, due to the success of this move and continuing pandemic concerns, the trend is expected to continue into the 2021 season, with deals already appearing as of mid-October this year. Equally, the little cousin of Black Friday, Cyber Monday, which has been steadily gaining traction over the past few years along with the sustained growth of the e-commerce market, extended across an entire week in 2020. With limits on crowds and shipping delays continuing into the 2021 holiday season, the stretching out of Black Friday and Cyber Monday is expected to continue as retailers look to satisfy consumers’ desire to skip the crowds and avoid delays on their purchases. 

The inclusion of Singles’ Day in the Black Friday period

Further extending the Black Friday atmosphere is the steady growth of Singles’ Day, the Chinese equivalent of Black Friday, which occurs on the 11th of November. Mirroring the growing popularity of Black Friday in China, Singles’ Day is gaining traction in Western Europe and the U.S, with many large European retailers successfully adopting the day and integrating further sales into their holiday season roster.   

Is Black Friday still relevant?

What started out as one crazy day for mass buying has now become an extended period of peak purchasing that is inextricably linked with the general holiday season. Does this mean the concept of Black Friday is eroding? Perhaps: although consumers still leap at the chance to bag unique deals and great promotions for their holiday purchases, it looks like Black Friday is set to become more of a buzzword for holiday season shopping rather than an event in its own right.

The anti-Black Friday movement

The erosion of Black Friday as a one-off event is paired with an interesting anti-Black Friday sentiment that goes hand-in-hand with the sustainability trend set to define shopping habits this holiday season and into 2022. As it becomes increasingly difficult for retailers to stand out amongst the sea of holiday season and Black Friday deals, many retailers are shifting their strategies away from highlighting price and are instead using their brand values as a selling point. Take Patagonia, for example, who have gained attention for their campaign to donate all of their Black Friday profits to environmental causes, even going as far as imploring customers, in their advertisements, to forego the traditional shopping frenzy and prioritise sustainability by not buying their jackets. Spanish shoe brand Alohas also began a long-standing campaign as early as late September beseeching consumers to boycott Black Friday and change their shopping habits to be more sustainable and less wasteful.    


It is undeniable that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the way consumers all over the world are shopping. The unpredictability of the past 18 months paired with the ever-growing global e-commerce market has highlighted several definitive retail trends that are most strongly present during the industry’s busiest period: the holiday season. With customers expecting more and more convenience and the line between the physical and digital worlds becoming increasingly blurred, it is highly likely that the new behaviours and attitudes in retail caused by the pandemic will continue into the future. As the industry is continually impacted by the effects of the shipping crisis and the ever-present possibility of more lockdowns and restrictions, it’s vital that retailers prepare properly and are ready to adapt to whatever the holiday season may throw at them in 2021.   


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