Holiday shopping: Stats, trends, and data-driven predictions for 2021

Digital illustration of holiday shopping.

Since March 2020, we have collectively worn out the term “unprecedented.” And retailers have felt those changes as much as anyone. Disruptions to regular business have been enormous, but so are the opportunities for new growth.

On the one hand, people are turning to ecommerce more than ever, which is good news for the brands and companies that were ready for it. New challenges, however — including supply chain issues that have threatened the holiday shopping season around the world — require new levels of ingenuity and flexibility from retailers.

There is no crystal ball to help you navigate this, but there is data — which, with good analytics, is almost the same thing. Using what we have learned so far will help retailers prepare for the rest of the Christmas shopping season and the start of 2022.

We have gathered meticulous data from last year’s holiday season and what’s occurred so far in 2021 to help retailers make the most of this holiday season and kick off 2022 the right way.

The evolution of holiday shopping and the 2020 pandemic

This is not our first holiday season in a pandemic, and some of our greatest insights come from understanding the change as consumers and businesses slowly emerge from total lockdown. In 2020, the global pandemic required people to stay home en masse for the first time, and we all relied on ecommerce more than ever. Online shopping reached new heights that year:

This year’s holiday shopping season is continuing to be historically unique, though not for the same reasons. People are out shopping in person again, but the challenges in labor and the global supply chain continue to plague retailers. This led to a November unlike any other.

“Online sales on big shopping days like Thanksgiving and Black Friday are decreasing for the first time in history, and it is beginning to smooth out the shape of the overall season,” says Taylor Schreiner, director of Adobe Digital Insights. “What we know as Cyber Week is starting to look more like Cyber Month.”

With data from the Adobe Holiday Shopping Insights, we can put this new season in context and offer some suggestions about how it should impact your decisions going forward.

What we learned from the online shopping boom

Pandemic shutdowns and quarantines kept people at home in 2020, while stimulus checks offered some demographics a little extra buying power. That surge of online shopping taught retailers a few key lessons that helped shape 2021 strategies, including:

The question as we entered the 2021 holiday season has been whether these trends would remain true all year and how they would guide 2021 holiday shopping strategies.

2021 holiday shopping overview

The 2021 holiday shopping season exceeded expectations before it even began. By mid-November 2021, consumers spent $42.3 billion — surpassing the $39.8 billion forecast and shattering the 2020 total for the same time period ($32.7 billion).

Yet Cyber Week in 2021 didn’t break any records compared to previous years:

This means much of the shopping power came in before Cyber Week even began. From November 1 to November 29, consumers spent $109.8 billion online, growing significantly at 11.9 percent over last year. To put that number into a more manageable context, online sales exceeded $3 billion for 22 days in November, a new milestone. Altogether, it is a great indication that retailers’ efforts to drive sales earlier in the season (to combat supply chain and shipping concerns) were largely successful.

Looking at what shoppers purchased during Cyber Week can help retailers focus their energies on what is really in demand and how to harness consumers’ interest. Here’s a quick look at what items were winning on key shopping days this season:

Toys — from low-tech Lego to high-tech VR systems — won the weekend.

How they are buying it

The biggest questions retailers need to answer for the second half of the holiday season include how much product they’ll need to have on store shelves versus warehouse shelves, how consumers will find them and shop their products, and how they will receive their purchases.

BOPIS (buy online, pick up in store)

Curbside pickup for everything from groceries to holiday gifts has been trending up since last holiday season. In 2020, BOPIS orders grew 40 percent over 2019. Early indicators showed this trending flat in October 2021, compared to October 2020, and Cyber Week continued that trend:

With more shoppers out in stores and more online sales happening earlier in the year, the need for BOPIS remained steady but did not see a spike.

Online holiday shopping

Online sales surged during the 2020 holiday season, to no one’s surprise, with sales surpassing $10 billion on Cyber Monday alone. We predict online shopping to total $207 billion this year, and the recent holiday shopping weekend confirms that prediction:

Mobile holiday shopping

Smartphone shopping has been on a steep incline since 2015. During the 2020 holiday season, smartphone purchases peaked at 51 percent on Christmas Day — the first-time mobile purchases rose above 50 percent.

We forecasted a continued trend for this holiday season, and Cyber Week delivered:

It seems mobile shopping’s steep trajectory has been halted, perhaps because more and more people are working from home and are always at their computers. Last year’s peak, however, came on Christmas Day, so it may be too early to tell. Retailers will be watching the data as the holiday season continues.

Consumers expected deep discounts during Cyber Week, but many retailers just couldn’t afford the dramatic price cuts that they’ve offered in recent years. Inflation and supply chain challenges continue to put many businesses in a tough position — especially through the holiday season.

Typically, inflation for online categories would drop roughly 5 percent before the holiday season began. But this year, prices have remained higher than they would have been previously, reducing savings for consumers even with holiday season deals on offer.

Retailers tried to account for this by offering discounts sooner, even if those discounts weren’t as deep as they have been in previous years. By October 2021:

Over Cyber Weekend, when most consumers expect the deepest discounts, prices were down again in most categories, but — interestingly — not always at their lowest of the season:

Looking ahead: Predictions for the 2021 holiday season and the start of 2022

The lessons we learned from the 2020 holiday shopping season and the 2021 Cyber Week offer key insights for the rest of this holiday season and the start of 2022.

1. Online sales will continue to gain popularity

This year, ecommerce is expected to drive holiday spending online to $207 billion, and it doesn’t show signs of stopping. Consumer expectations have changed, and online shopping is the way business will be done from now on.

If retailers aren’t already providing online stores that allow customers to view inventory, make purchases, and arrange for seamless pickup or delivery, there is no more time to waste.

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2. BOPIS will surge again

With shipping costs and delays both on the rise, BOPIS will remain a critical offering. We predict BOPIS numbers will continue to break records this year, peaking in the days before Christmas. For retailers that offer it, BOPIS could surpass 40 percent of all online orders this year.

More importantly, the option could be the deciding factor for where consumers shop — especially during what is left of the 2021 holiday season. With increased shipping costs and longer delays, consumers will need to pick up orders in order to get gifts beneath the tree on time.

And moving into 2022, most consumers will be reluctant to give up this newfound luxury. Expect BOPIS to remain key for retail businesses, especially while supply chain and logistical issues continue to delay shipping to consumers.

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3. Logistical challenges will persist

While many holiday shopping trends are showing signs of recovery, logistical challenges are creating new challenges for retailers.

  1. Out-of-stock messages are up more than 250 percent in 2021, compared to 2019, and the holiday demand is making the situation worse.
  2. Shipping costs are on the rise. Those costs are expected to peak around December 20 and 21, at an average of $15 per order on last-minute purchases.

    Retailers can respond to stockouts by giving shoppers alternatives to popular products that aren’t available. Many are also warning customers about shortages and encouraging people to shop early.

    Of course, these logistical challenges won’t be immediately solved once the holidays are over. Investing in online shopping features like related product suggestions and other inventory management capabilities are going to be necessary well into 2022.

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4. Mobile commerce will continue to grow and evolve

Even though mobile checkouts in 2021 couldn’t compete with the lockdown-fueled fervor of 2020, mobile behavior is going to continue to evolve in the digital-first world that has emerged. Smartphones are getting smarter, generations that have grown up with devices are coming into their own buying power, and consumer expectations are shifting. Your business’s ecommerce solution needs to be not just responsive but native.

Consumers engage with your brand in more ways than simply making purchases on their devices. They get accurate business information, find your store, contact customer support, coordinate BOPIS, and make in-store contact-free payments. That means it’s time for a robust and flawless mobile experience, as well as an up-to-date Google My Business profile and responsive social media accounts.

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What to expect and how to respond during the 2021 holiday shopping season

This holiday shopping season promises to keep consumers and retailers on their toes. Between the unknowable pivots of public health issues, ongoing supply chain and shipping difficulties, and the continuing growth of ecommerce, this holiday season will again rewrite the playbook for sellers and buyers.

Making decisions based on the most recent and accurate data available is how you win the holiday season and position yourself for continuing success in the new year. Adobe Commerce can help with all of that by putting the data you need in your hands.

The 2021 Adobe Holiday Shopping Insights report is the best place to start, providing stats and information updated in real time so you can react to trends occurring now and meet the ones you see ahead.

View the insights to help set yourself up for the very best results this holiday season.