With Monday expected to shine as the biggest day of Cyber Week, Black Friday online sales took a nosedive for the first time in a year when record levels of early holiday shopping are setting the tone for the season.

While a new report from data trackers Adobe Analytics shows 2021’s Black Friday was only slightly off last year’s pace, coming in at $8.9 billion versus 2020’s $9 billion, overall consumer holiday spending this year is still expected to come in well above a record, and pandemic-altered, 2020.

Adobe is predicting consumers will spend between $10.2 billion and $11.3 billion on Cyber Monday, making it the biggest online shopping day of the year

Online shopping on the Thanksgiving holiday was flat this year, equalling 2020’s $5.1 billion, and came in at the low end of Adobe’s pre-holiday predictions. Saturday and Sunday online purchases totaled $4.5 billion and $4.7 billion, respectively.

The Friday drop was the first since tracking began in 2012 but comes on the tail end of a November that saw three weeks of booming pre-holiday sales volumes.

“Online sales on big shopping days like Thanksgiving and Black Friday are decreasing for the first time in history, and it is beginning to smooth out the shape of the overall season,” said Taylor Schreiner, director of Adobe Digital Insights, in a statement. “With 21 days in November driving over $3 billion in spending, what we know as Cyber Week is starting to look more like Cyber Month.”

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In-store sales on Black Friday, once considered the behemoth of single-day holiday shopping, were also well below 2019’s pre-pandemic sales but still well above the 2020 edition when COVID-19 restrictions were still widely in place.

Retail data analyst Sensormatic Solutions reports sales volumes at U.S. brick-and-mortar retailers were down over 28% on Black Friday compared to 2019 but up more than 47% over 2020.

Brian Field, senior director of global retail consulting for Sensormatic, said the increase over last year reflects consumers are generally feeling more at ease with returning to in-person shopping this year.

“While in-store shopping is still not back to 2019 levels, more shoppers felt comfortable visiting stores in person this Black Friday than in 2020,” Field said in a press release. “One driver of this increased traffic could be ongoing supply chain challenges and shipping delays, which are resulting in consumers shopping earlier to ensure their gifts arrive on time.”

In-store shopping on Thanksgiving Day is fading out as more U.S. retailers opt to close for the holiday. Thanksgiving closures were widely embraced last year and were even more prevalent in 2021 as sales volumes were down over 90% from the same day in 2019.

Worries about supply chain and shipping issues, coupled with a record number of out-of-stock messages, is cultivating a more robust omnichannel approach in 2021 as shoppers engage a combination of apps, websites and brick-and-mortar retailers to complete their gift lists.

“With concerns about supply chain delays, we expect to see consumers make the most of in-store shopping opportunities,” Field said. “Coupled with unified commerce options like buy online, pick up in-store and pickup at curbside, consumers can ensure they are getting their holiday shopping done when and where it’s most convenient.”

Earmarks of the 2021 holiday shopping season include consumers embracing new ways to cover purchases that may exceed budget plans, with emerging buy-now-pay-later options and, increasingly, ordering online but picking up items at brick-and-mortar locations.

On Wednesday, Adobe Analytics reported the number of online holiday shopping orders paid for using buy-now-pay-later plans this year is up 466% over 2019, and the value of those purchases are up 447% over two years ago.

But why not just use a credit card?

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Buy-now-pay-later providers have carved out a consumer financing niche, using real-time “soft” credit inquiries that don’t pull up credit scores, don’t appear on the applicant’s credit report and, should credit be issued, don’t report new debt obligations back to credit agencies. This opens the door for applicants who may not qualify based on their scores, want to avoid maxing out current credit cards, or who simply don’t have ample credit history to pass a more in-depth credit assessment.

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Shoppers opting for curbside pickup of purchases made online over the weekend grew 33% over pre-pandemic levels and was used in 18% of online orders (for retailers who offer the service), according to Adobe data. Last year at this point, it was used in 25% of all online orders. Adobe analysts report some consumers may still be wary of large crowds, and the option provides a safe and efficient way to shop. 

So what holiday items are attracting the most attention this year?

  • The 2021 hot gifts for kids so far include Barbie toys, Baby Alive, Rainbocorns, Legos, Nerf toys and Hatchimals.
  • Making the must-have electronics so far are the Echo dot, Chromecast, Roku streaming sticks and Nintendo Switch in electronics.
  • Top-selling video games are Just Dance 2022, Mario Party Superstars, FIFA 22 and NBA 2K 22.
  • General merchandise winners to date have been air fryers, Oculus Quest 2 virtual reality goggles, Acer and Lenovo laptops, and Samsung and Vizio TVs.

Retail industry watchers have widely predicted 2021 holiday shopping will eclipse last year’s record of approximately $790 billion in purchases by 8% to 13%.

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