What Retailers Should Expect in the 2021 Holiday Shopping Season

Jennifer Waltner
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Customers plan for more in-store shopping, omnichannel experiences and digital payments

For the third year in a row, Applause conducted research to identify holiday/festive shopping plans and trends. This year’s survey took place in October with more than 2,800 respondents from across the Americas, EMEA and APAC. The research revealed some significant year-over-year changes in how consumers plan to shop and spend during the holiday season.

A return to in-store shopping may not boost in-store spending

The pandemic had a profound impact on consumer behavior last year, with less than half of survey respondents (46%) reporting they felt comfortable shopping in-store. According to the National Retail Federation, the number of online Black Friday shoppers passed the 100 million mark for the first time in 2020. While 69% of survey respondents said they feel comfortable returning to physical locations this year, 45% of those who plan to shop in-store locations intend to spend less than they did in 2020. On the other hand, of the 91% of survey respondents who intend to shop online, 68% plan to spend the same amount or more online than they did last year.

More shopping via mobile devices

In the 2020 survey, 53% said they prefer to use a laptop or computer for online shopping with the remaining 47% favoring a smartphone or tablet. This year the roles reversed: 57.5% said they preferred a mobile device while 42.5% chose the computer or laptop option. As shoppers move to buying more via phones and tablets, it’s more important than ever for retailers to make sure checkout processes work smoothly on mobile devices.

In addition, 28.6% of shoppers reported they were likely or very likely to use smart speakers to purchase holiday gifts. Makers of Amazon Echo, Google Home and similar devices must ensure customers can easily use them for holiday shopping.

Get omnichannel right to meet consumer expectations

While consumers may plan to shop online, they expect to take advantage of in-store and curbside pickup options. In this year’s survey, 58% of respondents said they are using services like curbside pickup, BOPIS (buy online, pick up in-store) and BORIS (buy online, return in-store) more because of COVID-19, and 66% reported they are more likely to shop with brands that offer omnichannel options.

While more retailers are offering BOPIS and curbside pickup, most have yet to master seamless execution for these components of their omnichannel offerings. Nearly one quarter (24%) of shoppers who had used curbside pickup before reported issues finding where to park to receive their order and/or trouble locating the curbside pickup option while ordering online. With 35.6% of survey respondents reporting they’re likely or very likely to leave a brand with a poor or unsafe omnichannel shopping experience, companies need to focus on streamlining these parts of the customer journey to capture repeat sales.

The number of shoppers citing user experience as a decisive factor in online purchases increased to 12.3% this year, from 9.5% in 2020. Although more shoppers reported user experience as crucial in the 2021 survey, consumers still say they value a trusted brand (61%) over an easy/intuitive experience (39%) when it comes to online shopping.

Shoppers reported that encountering a bug during the checkout process was the most likely factor to cause them to abandon a purchase, according to over half of respondents in both 2021 (52%) and 2020 (60%).

Increasing mobile wallet use

Preferred payment methods are evolving, along with the devices they use to shop. Globally, credit and debit cards (71.2% combined) ranked as the preferred choice for holiday shopping across the globe, followed by mobile wallets (14.2%) and then cash (11.3%). In APAC and EMEA mobile wallets were an especially popular choice, where 26% and 16% of shoppers, respectively, preferred this payment method. The Americas were the only region where cash outranked mobile wallets by a slight margin of 9% to 8%.

Concerns about supply chain may influence when people shop

Our survey found that 40% of shoppers globally are factoring supply chain delays into their holiday shopping plans. As consumers shop earlier in an attempt to secure gifts in time for the holidays, Black Friday/Cyber Monday sales may hit record levels — and retailers must be prepared for significant spikes in volume, both online and in-store. Thoroughly vetting shopping and payment processes, as well as operational readiness for seasonal spikes, is a crucial component in preparation for retail’s busiest season.

View the infographic to see more takeaways from this year’s survey.

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