A three-year comparison shows 2021 shopper behavior mirrors 2019 with 2020 shopping patterns heavily influenced by COVID-19 anomalies.

Holiday buying during Cyber 5, which includes the five days from Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday, saw U.S. consumers spending $33.90 billion online, according to data from Adobe Analytics. While the numbers were formidable, it was just shy of the record $34.36 billion in digital revenue during the same long weekend last year and represented a slight 1.4% year-over-year dip. It still marks a 19.0% jump over the more normal pre-pandemic spending levels in 2019.

One positive was that over the November timeframe (1-29), 22 days had exceeded $3 billion in online spending. This early shopping set a new milestone and contrasts with only nine days topped hitting that threshold and suggests a new normal for shoppers and retailers alike.

Though revenues are known, it’s still instructive to look at the Cyber 5 in anticipation of what lies ahead for the remainder of the holiday season. It also may inform how 2022 will shape up, including what shopper behavior becomes permanent and what may have just factored into consumer shopping behavior during the pandemic. When looking at 2021 on its own, the numbers make sense, but their three-year comparison may be most interesting. This data suggests that behavior patterns mirror 2019, with 2020 shopping patterns heavily influenced by COVID-19 anomalies. This research was part of our Digital Commerce 360/Bizrate Insights 2021 Cyber 5 survey conducted in early December, immediately after the holiday period ended. Survey respondents for each year are as follows: 2021 (1147) vs. 2020 (1113) vs. 2019 (1073).

When asked what percentage of their holiday gift buying was complete as of 12/1, the findings were as follows:

  • At least half: 55%
  • Less than half: 30%
  • No shopping done: 15%

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Given supply chain woes, holiday shopping is not as complete as one might expect. Year-over-year, when evaluating those who have finished over half their holiday shopping, online shoppers have completed less of their holiday gift buying. When it came to hitting the holiday shopping halfway point, 2020 saw a peak of 65% and 2019 came closer to 2021’s numbers at 57%.

Now let’s turn our attention to online shopping. Here 59% of surveyed online shoppers report having completed at least half of their gift buying online, while 34% report having bought less than half to date and the remaining 7% opted not to shop online at all.

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The three-year patterns for completion online are like general purchasing behavior. Year-over-year, online shoppers have completed slightly less of their holiday buying online, with 2020 COVID-strong at 66% and 2019 on par with 2021 at 57%. Of course, we expect that physical stores may be taking some of the business from online post-COVID. Having worked in retail for over four decades, I can’t help but think that procrastination may still be a factor. This is despite 2021’s unprecedented retailer efforts to encourage early buying.

 

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The supply chain may prove to be the story of the season. Distinct shopper behavior is evident. Early buying is a factor for some, while standard holiday shopping behavior remains for others. Surprisingly, only 34% of respondents indicated they had purchased more gifts due to these concerns and 66% had purchased the same or less, suggesting they felt no sense of urgency.

Retailers will have to assess the effect of in-store shopping at the end of the 2021 holiday season. In the meantime, behavior patterns are less clear:

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  • 31% of consumers surveyed shopped more in stores.
  • 34% said they shopped in stores the same amount as last year.
  • 35% shopped in stores less than in 2020.

Retailers will need to monitor this as we move into the new year.

The weight of key holidays may have lessened

Just over half of shoppers took advantage of Black Friday while 1 in 3 shoppers bought online over Cyber Monday and Thanksgiving weekend. The holiday penetration for key days was as follows:

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  • Black Friday: 51%
  • Cyber Monday: 37%
  • Thanksgiving Weekend: 35%

It bears examination and leads me to conclude that online shopping is instead a month-long marathon. Shoppers are no longer as focused on Cyber 5 holiday shopping beyond Black Friday, now perceived as having the best deals.

 

Across the Thanksgiving period, shoppers’ buying was more limited as shoppers gathered in-person with family and friends in this post-COVID year. Cyber-Monday shopping also saw significant declines among shoppers online while Black Friday shopping was on par with past years. Its penetration is as follows:

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Cyber Monday

  • 2021: 37%
  • 2020: 56%
  • 2019: 58%

Black Friday

  • 2021: 51%
  • 2020: 57%
  • 2019: 53%

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Retailer selection is predicated on free shipping and featured products that hopefully are in-stock 

Shoppers are always looking to save. For 42%, that quest starts with free shipping. Appealing promotions were also a factor during the Cyber 5 for 33% of those surveyed. Finding the right products and having them in stock was second only to free shipping when it came to retailer selection. Shoppers wanting to know if products are in-stock factor is heightened in today’s climate, with 36% considering its status. And as always, liking the featured products still matters to shoppers. Shoppers have long memories and past experiences are critical given the 22% who cited previous experience with a retailer. The use of wish lists is a convenience that shoppers have come to enjoy and 22% did just that over this past Cyber 5 holiday. It’s important to reinforce that while there are many nuances to shopper behavior, in the end, they don’t trump price when it comes to retailer selection.

As it turns out, money-saving opportunities may be a more limiting factor in retailer selection as shoppers saw them less over the Cyber 5. This applies to free shipping which has seen declining numbers year-over-year.

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When we asked survey participants about their experiences with online promotions, there was no clear pattern. From a volume perspective, 29% said they were about the same, 27% saw them as readily available and only 18% believed they were harder to come by. It’s interesting to note that 25% felt the range of discounts varied by sites they shopped. The focus on the part of the shopper may have also mattered as 24% indicated they were more focused on finding promotions. Only 13% said they were not as concerned, which leads me to believe that early buying did not meet expectations.

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Free shipping is fundamental to shoppers

Most online shoppers (55%) received free shipping on at least 75% of their orders. Due to stock levels, retailers may have limited offers for unconditional free shipping in favor of having shoppers spend at a pre-established threshold to garner this benefit. Such strategies would then reduce the number of shoppers who could take advantage of this offer.

Shoppers were challenged to find free shipping as they had in past years. A comparison of those shoppers where 75% or more of their orders had free shipping is instructive:

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  • 2021: 55%
  • 2020: 66%
  • 2019: 78%

Cyber-5 shoppers self-consume

Now let’s turn to some of shoppers’ activities during the Cyber-5 timeframe. Online shoppers optimize time with gifting and personal shopping, which topped the activity list at 40%. Supply chain woes meant more focus on delivery as 27% checked for estimated delivery dates on products of interest and 24% checked product availability online before placing an order for delivery. Even 12% took advantage of the increasing number of retailers now offering same-day delivery. Mobile purchasing remains a critical convenience, with mobile web usage at 27% and app usage at 23%. Omnichannel activity was significant where 22% of survey respondents check store product availability and 21% store information, likely in anticipation of a visit. I was surprised to see in-store pickup at only 13%, with curbside at 9% though they may be casualties of a post-COVID era. 14% of consumers surveyed have already purchased physical gift cards have already been purchased. 11% bought their digital counterparts. Given supply chain woes, a last-minute push is expected on the digital front.

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Cyber 5 sees a new normal and may become more spread out. Shoppers are well along with their holiday gift buying and online shopping still plays a prominent role. Store activity appeared to be mixed among our online shoppers. The supply chain doesn’t seem to have frontloaded as much shopping as one might have expected though Black Friday was still strong and most dominant among the Cyber 5 days. Promotions, especially free shipping, were not as prevalent, impacting overall performance. It will be essential to monitor how aggressive retailers will be as the final days of the season ramp up and whether shoppers complete last-minute shopping in-store. We will be watching as we want to understand how shoppers’ behavior plays out for the rest of the year and, more importantly, into 2022.

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