The holiday shopping season favors online retailers, given stock, supply chain and hiring challenges, based on online and store visits from senior consumer insights analyst Lauren Freedman.

The most visible sign I saw when out shopping the stores and visiting the mall in early November was “we’re hiring.”

Messy stores, in-the-works holiday displays and stores getting ready for the all-important holidays. Let’s face it—they’re not all ready for prime time shopping. However my email inbox suggests subject lines that range from “All the cozy you ever want” to “Bring on the holidays.” Is the web ahead of the curve once again?

It appears every store was hiring and Madewell, part of the J.Crew Group Inc., No. 80 in the 2021 Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000, tried to make an extra special impression with the sign shown below. One of the bigger concerns I anticipate is taking care of the customers when they do come to the store. Additionally, as I encountered at Walmart Inc., No. 2 in the 2021 Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000, and other stores I visited, messy stores were failing to keep up with the everyday concerns of “minding the store.”

madewell_hiring walmart messy store

And manning the store will be different as retailers set up alternative solutions to best serve their customers. Previously, I tested the buy online, pick up in store service at Kohl’s Corp., No. 18 in the 2021 Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000, which the retailer seemed to service out of a fitting room. Now, the apparel retailer is taking a cue from Amazon lockers and moving toward a self-service model, in which shoppers find their online order themselves.

kohls bopis

It’s easier to style up the web rather than the store though the best retailers must do both

Before getting into the ecommerce business, I spent 15 years on the store side. Gearing up for the holidays involved a well-crafted plan and it had to be just right. When I go online, there are countless examples of compelling gift centers complete with holiday themes making shoppers wonder if online is where retailers believe the payoff will be. But in store, some merchants appear to be lackluster at this early date while others seem ready for the challenge.


Kohl’s Corp, was one store that seemed to have on its game face. Its Presentville overhead presentation, shown below, provided an inviting holiday shopping atmosphere, as were additional gift displays peppered throughout various departments from home goods to toys and women’s apparel.

kohls presentville

Ulta Beauty, No. 45 in the 2021 Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000, crafted themes under the “Celebrate” umbrella across channels.  In store, Ulta showcases sub-themes such as gift more, cozy more and together more making for a unified gifting strategy.

ulta gift moree ulta gift guide

Nordstrom Inc., No #20 in the 2021 Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000, is one example of a retailer who has set up its stores and the web for success. In store signage greets arriving guests with an enticing holiday display touting familiar omnichannel services like order pickup, which was located steps away. Nordstrom also dedicated additional holiday real estate to curated merchandise in the nearby shoe department, making for a festive environment. And online, Nordstrom showcases gifts by price point, offers free appointments, which can be virtual or in-person, and features gift cards to cover any other concerns. Nordstrom promotes the tagline “Make Merry” both in-store and online with a program guide that includes everything from festive photo booths to a holiday breakfast with Santa, albeit still virtual.

nordstrom gifting omni nordstrom holiday area nordstrom gift guide

Out-of-stocks are obvious in stores and can be hidden better online

In a year when shopping early due to potential out-of-stocks is the topic d’jour, the store is having a hard time competing. Retailers can couch their supply chain woes online through filtering and algorithms only showing what’s available and never missing a beat. In-store, in departments ranging from legwear to the all-important toy category, shoppers will find some retailers lacking when it comes to depth of inventory and not putting the best foot forward.

macys empty shelves target toy shelf walmart empty shelf 4

Promotions may be more visible

So how did things look when it came to promotions as one of the core predictions of the season is that there will be significantly less. No one appeared to have blanket promotions that were storewide in nature. Instead, Kohl’s had subtle examples of digital pricing, Ulta had a Five for $5 stocking stuffer box and Target Corp., No. 6 in the 2021 Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000, had many endcaps with holiday merchandise priced just right. And Best Buy Co. Inc., No. 5 in the 2021 Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000, lined up TVs, poised for grab and go early morning Black Friday shoppers. Sephora knows that starting price points are important and it highlighted gifts starting as low as $10 addressing price-sensitive shoppers.

ulta $5 stock stuffers target_bins

But have no fear as some retailers like Target, Best Buy as well as Dick’s Sporting Goods, No. 29 in the 2021 Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000, let customers know that there is no need to worry as they have a Price Match Guarantee.


Loyal customers are a focus and rewards programs drive opportunities

Rewards are particularly important for those retailers that have an omnichannel approach, as they hope these service will both acquire new customers and retain existing members. Coach featured its Coach Insider program in the mall store window to attract passersby while Target promotes the Red Card at the register and customer service, knowing shoppers will have time as they wait to complete transactions. Kohl’s Cash is promoted heavily on digital price signage as it is on the web and at customer service counters.

coach_coach insider target rewards kohls rewards

Stores are driving customers to the web

One of the most striking aspects of my store visits were the myriad of ways that stores told their customers to go online. Dick’s Sporting Goods had table signage with a large “MORE” message about what could be found online including more styles, sizes and colors. Kohl’s suggested to shoppers that by using a QR code with their phone’s camera, they could shop even more home must-haves. Perhaps the QR code is the merchant’s new best friend.

kohls holiday dispay with buy more online qr code dicks more at dotcom

As you enter Nordstrom from the parking lot, you can’t help but read all of its signage, letting you know there are more choices online and you can pick them up tomorrow. This surely will be something shoppers will be thinking about before making their next visit to the store.  Target tells you to Fast Track your next Target run by leveraging order pickup with signs posted near self-checkout. And at Kohl’s, if you can’t find the style you’re looking for, you will likely find a solution at Each of these retailers is using in-store real estate to drive shoppers online.

nordstrom omni kohls_find more styles online

Retailers look to capitalize on increasing mobile usage

Retailers know the value of a shopper’s phone number ,and the signage at Dick’s Sporting Goods shows its willingness to give customers $20 off a $100 purchase in exchange. Retailers including Best Buy and Dick’s Sporting Goods also believe that apps are powerful and these stores proudly display ways to engage with mobile via signage as shoppers enter the store and as they cruise the departments. Macy’s also encourages shoppers to scan for more, as does Amazon’s 4-star concept store.


Convincing shoppers to use these apps should result in positive shopping experiences. They will save time and their omnichannel features can lead to customer loyalty.

dicks_text alert promo macys scan for more online dicks download app amazon 4 star go onlinebestbuy_app

Can virtual appointments take the place of in-store associates?

On the outside of J. Crew’s window, on an urban neighborhood shopping street, was a message that encouraged private shopping, a powerful carryover from pandemic days. When visiting Lululemon Athletica Inc., in a suburban mall, No #35 in the 2021 Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000, holiday themes were not yet in place. It did however continue to promote messaging in the front window that included taking advantage of shopping appointments. I tested a Lululemon virtual appointment during the height of COVID-19 lockdowns, and it was on-brand, positive and appears to be a lasting model.


The gift card may be the 2021 default holiday gift

Retailers seem to have more gift card displays than I can remember from past years. Nordstrom had a rack of cards while Target had them positioned near the register. And it was powerful to see tabletop displays touting “the gift everyone ones” along select products and behind the cash wrap. When all else fails, the gift card will be a problem solver.

nordstrom gift card

Retailers are using a variety of tactics to get ready for the holidays this season. In a world challenged by the supply chain, they still need to put their best foot forward with in-store and onsite experiences. The store may be forced into self-service models, QR codes that push shoppers to apps and omnichannel visits completed via curbside pickup. Creativity in promotions will be in play rather than overarching sales. And perhaps some of the solutions that retailers honed during the pandemic will prove to be year-round customer favorites that help boost buying behavior amidst higher shopper satisfaction. We can be certain of one thing; it will certainly be a holiday to remember.