One of the most interesting aspects of holiday shopping this year will be the role of the store. Senior Consumer Insights analyst Lauren Freedman evaluates 15 top online retailers on how their in-store experience is geared up for the holidays.

So what’s it like at the stores? One of the most interesting aspects of holiday shopping this year will be the role of the store. There are many questions as the pundits attempt to predict how integral its role will be to the season. With that in mind, I visited 15 top online retailers to see if they were up for the holidays. Starting in early November, some were simply not ready, so to fairly assess the situation, I visited two different stores within the chain or a store twice if the initial visit was limited in terms of its holiday experience.

I looked at the following top online retailers:

  • Inc.
  • Best Buy Co. Inc.
  • Crate&Barrel
  • Dick’s Sporting Goods
  • Kohl’s Corp.
  • Lululemon Athleta Inc.
  • Macy’s Inc.
  • Nordstrom
  • Sephora
  • Target Corp.
  • Ulta Beauty
  • Urban Outfitters Inc.
  • Walmart Inc.
  • Williams-Sonoma Inc.

Promotional consistency plays to the shopper’s favor

On average, the stores I visited were not very promotional coming in at 2.32 on a 5-point scale where 5 was the most promotional. Two stores I visited were rated at a 5, including Walmart Inc., No. 2 in the Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000 and Macy’s Inc., No. 3, while Kohl’s Corp., No. 18 was also aggressive at a 4.

Shoppers have come to expect that the experiences retailers deliver across channels will be consistent. Online, has touted its Black Friday Early Access deals.

macys_early access

In making my second trip to a suburban Chicago store, Macy’s had signage in place throughout the store to support that initiative. Shoppers can then make the choice as to which channel best serves their needs.


Omnichannel at its finest

The retailers knew that if there ever was going to be an omnichannel holiday, 2021 would be poised for success. The learnings from last year ensured that they were ready and our visits spoke to its execution. During my visits to these 15 stores, I graded the retailers a 3.79 out of 5 where 5 was a sophisticated omnichannel experience including pickup options and supporting signage. A quick look at our Digital Commerce 360/Bizrate Insights October 2021 pre-holiday survey suggested that 24% of survey respondents would be checking product availability at nearby stores with 17% taking advantage of  BOPIS or curbside pickup and likely even more.

Those whose execution was exemplary, at a 5, included Best Buy Co., Inc, No. 5 in the Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000, Dick’s Sporting Goods, No. 29, Walmart and Nordstrom while Kohl’s clocked in at 4. Wow, it’s one thing to have your standard pickup signs spread through parking lots but to find Walmart’s Black Friday-specific signage was impressive. At first, I thought the parking was dedicated to Black Friday purchases but ultimately it was advertising, and impressive, nonetheless. Either way, a good investment on its part and certainly eye-catching for those who park or drive by as I did.

Coming up the escalator at a Kohl’s mall location, shoppers are bombarded with omnichannel messaging. Its kiosk has long been a fixture at the store and allows for shoppers to check its website for additional styles and colors. Kohl’s also directed shoppers to a store pickup counter which is manned by an associate vs. the self-service option I encountered at its Chicago store. Additionally, should shoppers have an Amazon return, a right turn can take care of any concerns. Kohl’s has got you covered amid a festive holiday display.


kohls_omniThe QR code shines bright

Our neighborhood Amazon store had an array of signage for the holidays as well as customer service. Knowing that many shoppers may be spending time in line, it showcased a QR code that highlights some of its epic deals. Of course, as shoppers are hopefully standing 6 feet apart, this can be their chance to get a head start on conquering their shopping list.

amazon_6 feet

Retailers embrace new ways to shop

As I walked into one of Crate&Barrel’s suburban stores, I saw signage about three ways to shop Crate&kids. I must admit I was surprised to see the suggested ways which included its digital lookbook and the QR code to access, now a core part of this holiday’s shopping. Of course, no surprise to include “see an associate.” Despite hiring signs on the front door, it has always been known for strong associates, so perhaps it’s a point of differentiation from competitors and other retailers in general.

Lastly, as shoppers continue to go mobile, getting that mobile number becomes increasingly important. Giving 10% off in exchange for securing that information seems like a small tradeoff in the world of customer acquisition.


Confronting inventory challenges

Of course, all of us are cognizant that shelves are not full and customer favorites may be out-of-stock now and for the foreseeable future. Yet despite these warnings, I found that the stores had really geared up over the past week or so and I marked the 15 retailers on average with a 4.11, where 5 was a well-stocked store. Both Walmart and Target had some empty shelves as I perused the aisles despite corporate communication alluding to strong inventory levels. I will look again over the Cyber weekend.


During my visit to Sephora, I came across this clever “Gone” signage. This is smart messaging on its part hoping not to disappoint its shoppers. In October, I happened to be in Manhattan store with my daughter and the product she was interested in was unavailable. Sephora is very good about checking other locations and will even place your order with free shipping. But with stores being short staffed, this is an excellent reminder to go online as she did. There was a bit of a wait, but ultimately, she got the product she wanted, which is of particular importance given the replenishment nature of the beauty business.

sephora_out of stocks

But in the end the experience must still inspire shoppers

Most of the stores made an effort to provide a festive shopping experience, and I scored them an average of of 3.50 out of a possible 5. Both Crate&Barrel and Williams-Sonoma Inc., No. 23 in Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000, came in strong alongside Ulta’s 4.5 while stores that scored a 4 included Nordstrom, Macy’s and Sephora. Ideally, these efforts will be rewarded as shoppers peruse displays like those seen at Williams-Sonoma.

w_s_display 2

This is just the beginning, but a crucial time that sets the pace for the remainder of the season. We will be back over Cyber-5 as shoppers are expected to spend in excess of $36 billion online over the Thanksgiving weekend, according to Digital Commerce 360 estimates. Hopefully the stores are stocked, the associates are ready and the weather cooperates. That’s what makes for perfect shopping, at least in store. Either way, we know they will be shopping online.