Holiday 2021 Takeaways: 7 Lessons Learned

In some ways, it seems like it was just a relief to finish 2021. The predictions were dire, the pandemic was back and the customer faced obstacles from the supply chain to delivery. And despite all of this, online holiday sales came in at $204.5 billion, up 8.6% year-over-year, according to Adobe Analytics data, the analysis which covers over one trillion visits to U.S. retail sites. An assessment of the season leads us to 7 holiday 2021 takeaways, all likely to have an impact on the 2022 shopping year.

Holiday 2021 Takeaways - Lessons Learned

1. The Shopping Season Was a Marathon

One of the key 2021 takeaways for the online holiday season was the potential emergence of new shopping patterns. Behavior had changed and the season looked more like a marathon than a sprint. According to those same Adobe Analytics findings, a record 38 days surpassed $3 billion in daily spend (25 days in 2020 by comparison) , as consumers spread out their shopping beyond the Cyber-5 (Thanksgiving (Thursday Nov. 25) through Cyber Monday (Nov.29)).

There may be some positives emanating from this situation as shoppers may continue this early buying out of caution, having lived through a season of supply chain challenges. In the past, more established buying patterns were seen and they centered around key holidays like Black Friday and Cyber Monday. One of the critical 2021 holiday takeaways is that this may also prove to be valuable for retailers as they gather buying information early in order to replenish and be better prepared at the onset of the next holiday season.

2. Uncertainty Will be a Fixture in Our Lives

This year saw more uncertainty than I can remember. The variants continue to wreak havoc and work-from-home is likely to become a fixture. Defined shopping patterns will be altered and behavior may be less of a collective experience and more individually-driven. Shoppers may lack the confidence to spend as they once had and consumption in categories like luxury may be impacted, while the home category sees greater activity, given the time being we are all spending there. Today seems like a free for all in retail and this seems to parallel many other aspects of our lives.

3. Keeping Inventory in Stock was Clearly a Challenge

Throughout the year, retailers alerted shoppers about the challenges faced from the supply chain. Lands’ End is just one example of a retailer who acknowledged what we all knew and, at the same time, thanked their customers for their patience. If there’s one thing we have learned from the pandemic, it’s that we all need a little more patience.

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4. Even Timely Shipping Added to the Chaos of the Season

I’m a huge hockey fan. As I was on the hunt for a Chicago Blackhawks jersey, I couldn’t help but take note of the message they had sent. I was already past the Christmas cut-off period and my only hope was to get the jersey in advance of the January 2nd game. Now, as the Omicron variant raged, I was just hoping the game would still be on. It’s a balancing act for retailers to decide how best to message potential delays to avoid disappointment but at the same time risk not having customers convert.

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5. Omnichannel Solutions will Continue to Evolve

Omnichannel’s presence had been pleasing shoppers before the pandemic and beyond. Its staples include BOPIS with the best of retailers featuring curbside pickup. An important holiday 2021 takeaway was the sophistication of those experiences and the impact that is being felt among retailers.

To support these findings, Target’s brick-and-mortar locations remain crucial to its digital growth. The retailer reported that “they fulfilled 95% of all sales (in stores and online) from its physical stores. More telling is that 75% of online orders were either picked up in store, curbside or shipped from a store.” During that same time period, The Home Depot reported that 55% of online orders were fulfilled through a store.

This year also saw the introduction of curbside returns and I’m confident this will be just the beginning of this trend. Two retailers I am aware of who are offering this service include Dick’s Sporting Goods and Nordstrom. Every time a retailer adds such a convenience, while there is a cost, there certainly appears to be a customer relationship building opportunity.

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6. The Discounts Were Not as Deep as Shoppers Might Have Liked

Discounts were not as plentiful as had been seen in the past and perhaps that was a factor of the supply chain. My sense, in monitoring the season, is that they were mostly 20% off. Of course as we were closing in on the Christmas finish line, I certainly saw flash sales for retailers on specific products but nothing like the sitewide sales seen in the past. This may result in shoppers taking a “buy as you go” mentality, pouncing on the discounts when they encounter them, as more than in the past, a waiting game may lead to disappointment.

A 12/16 email speaks to one of those last-minute sales as Steve Madden extends a 50% offer to his customers. While ground shipping cutoffs may have passed, this served as a welcome personal gift for shoe lovers.


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Creativity in the use of the gift card was seen as retailers looked for last-minute solutions that would appeal to shoppers. Two that I took notice of are highlighted below.

One came via a December 20 email from Aerie. Touted as a last-minute gift, shoppers are rewarded for their gift card purchases. When they spend $75 on a gift card, they also get a $25 gift card as a bonus. This promotion was available through December 26 so even procrastinators would be rewarded. Shoppers then can start shopping the very next day and the free gift cards are valid through February 2, 2022. 

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7. Simplicity of Solutions Will be Sought by Shoppers

On the same day, Coach sent out an email that touted taking the guesswork out of gifting. Not only was this well designed but those who took advantage of the service would receive an extra 10% off select gifts. This is certainly a case of everybody wins. But, more importantly, all of us are seeking simple solutions that resonate as we live in very unpredictable times. As gifting is a year-round opportunity, exploring these opportunities can be a growth opportunity and a customer acquisition tool for retailers that should put GiftNow in consideration on their 2022 roadmap.


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Holiday 2021 Takeaways: Shoppers are Creatures of Habit but Change is in the Air

Of course, we all must remember that many shoppers will stay the course. As retailers, there are lessons to be gleaned from these chaotic times that could have lasting implications. Perhaps, this is an ideal time to review some of these trends and assess the potential impact they might have on both the customer experience and the bottom line of your business.

Lauren Freedman is the president of the e-tailing group

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