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Lessons Learned From the 2021 Holiday Retail Season

A credit card for retail sales with holiday decor around it

The 2021 holiday shopping season had challenges for retailers and customers. Supply chain delays, shipping concerns, and the emergence of the Omicron variant created uncertainty through December for shoppers and sellers alike.

Even earlier in the holiday season, it was clear that the 2021 holiday shopping season would look different. Early data from Black Friday and Cyber Monday retail trends found that the weekend saw reduced online shopping, more abandoned online carts, and fewer discounts.

Despite that, full-season holiday retail revenue forecasts remained high. Whether or not those forecasts proved true will be evident when the Census Bureau reports official December numbers in mid-January. But the initial data, including customer surveys and reports from Mastercard SpendingPulse, show some significant trends.

Findings from 2021 holiday season stats all retailers should know

Here are some of the top findings from the 2021 holiday retail stats.

In-person shopping still dominates, despite push to online

Nearly 80% of total retail sales were in-store this season, according to Mastercard SpendingPulse. Ecommerce sales did grow this year, representing 0.3% more than the share of sales online in 2020. However, brick-and-mortar shopping was still the dominant choice by far for customers for holiday shopping. 

Takeaways:

This indicates an experience customers get from in-person shopping that they miss online. Most notably, there are certain purchases that customers are more comfortable making when they can interact with the products. Shoppers go in-store to touch and test out their product quality before purchase. 

Retailers can leverage this information by offering opportunities for online customers to receive similar reassurance. For example, mattress companies with a 90-day trial period use this strategy to help ensure customers feel comfortable with clicking buy. Companies that offer extended warranties allow customers to get reassurance that the company stands by the quality of their product, which can help ease the concern of not being in person. Finally, offering a variety of photos and videos—especially those provided by real customers—can also help recreate the in-person product evaluation.

The holiday shopping season is longer than ever before

Most retailers put their focus on the critical time from Black Friday through Christmas Eve to maximize shopping. However, 61% of customers reported they started shopping in early November, a higher number than any previous year.

Despite so many getting an early jump in the shopping season, many weren’t done. Retail sales continued post-holiday, with 65% of holiday shoppers reporting they planned to shop the week after Christmas. Customers listed wanting to shop ongoing deals as a top reason for returning to the stores the following week.

Takeaways:

Customers’ shopping behavior centered around the timing of deals. As companies posted sales starting in October and early November, customers responded by starting shopping early. A desire to continue with ongoing deals after the holidays motivated customers’ desires to extend spending, especially returning to stores to spend any gift cards.

Take advantage of the many holidays throughout the year to post and promote deals for customers. While Christmas months are dominant, you can maximize the sales on holidays throughout the year.

Aspects other than products affect customers’ purchase decisions

Buy Now, Pay Later payment options have been growing in popularity. According to Afterpay, BNPL orders increased by 34% YOY in the 2021 season. The biggest demographic for growth was Gen-Z shoppers, who used BNPL 11% more than in the 2020 holiday retail season. Major categories for shoppers using BNPL included fashion, footwear, beauty, homegoods, and fitness.

Customers routinely shop where they can get multiple items, and this is especially appealing with a lengthy list of people to shop for. In the 2021 season, the number of items per cart that converts increased to an average of 3.85 items, slightly above the 3.8 average in 2020. 

Takeaways:

Retail competition is high, and customers have many options in every category. Where they shop, and what they end up buying, can be heavily influenced by aspects other than the product details alone. Making the experience easy for customers with options like BNPL and the ability to find additional items easily can be a big selling point. Using an effective product add-on strategy is helpful no matter the time of year to help customers find more things they want. 

Applying holiday findings to maximize sales in 2022

Customers and retailers had a unique year in many ways. But many of the stats from this year reveal significant findings that give valuable insight into how customers shop. The key to retailers’ success comes from providing additional reassurance for online shoppers, emphasizing deals outside of the typical shopping window, and offering differentiators that make a customer’s experience easy. 

Whether you’re planning for the 2022 holiday retail season or looking to maximize your current quarter sales, applying these takeaways can be a big lift to retailers throughout 2022.

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Janessa McQuivey

About the author

Janessa McQuivey is the Content Marketing Manager at Mulberry. Her degree in Human Development fueled a love of understanding customer experience. She has been in research and writing for 3 years and has covered everything from AI technology to her own dating life. Janessa has published across blogs, newspapers, and academic journals.

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