The holiday shopping season is upon us. And if you're going to shop instead of opt for digital, virtual or experiential gifts this year, it will pay to shop strategically.
You may be well aware of the supply chain issues affecting many merchants and the wisdom of shopping for some items sooner rather than later, but there are other developments afoot. Consumers should expect these seven shopping trends this holiday season:
-- A more frenzied shopping experience.
-- November: a month of Black Fridays.
-- Smaller discounts.
-- More curbside service.
-- Consumers embrace experiential gifts.
-- Supply chain issues as a marketing tool.
-- Stores may stay fairly well-stocked.
[READ: The Best Time to Buy Everything.]
A More Frenzied Shopping Experience
Expect more shoppers at the malls and stores this year. With many people vaccinated, it certainly seems likely.
Wei-Chung Wang, professor of business and economics at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, believes online shopping will be robust, but that brick-and-mortar stores will be bustling this holiday season.
"People have been craving for the festivities of the holiday season since the last holiday season was a flop. If anything, I anticipate us to have a more fanatic shopping spree for Black Friday or Cyber Monday," Wang says.
November: a Month of Black Fridays
This has been a trend for a while, but it's even more important for stores to offer deals now, as shoppers look to begin holiday shopping earlier than usual due to supply chain fears.
"Not unlike last year, I project big retailers will start their sales as early as October," says Gina Pomponi, president and COO of Bluewater Media, a direct marketing and business-to-consumer advertising agency in Clearwater, Florida.
"These sales will not be limited to in-store purchases only," Pomponi adds. "Online sales will lead the charge for holiday retail revenue. Or maybe I should say Amazon will lead the charge with everyone else trying to catch up. All of this is going to make Black Friday's online deals even more important."
While there will still be plenty of deals to be had throughout the holidays, you probably won't see a lot of crazy markdowns like doorbusters where something is 80% off.
That's because of the supply chain issues, which have raised the cost of doing business and have limited the amount at which retailers can price merchandise and still make a profit, according to Teresa McCarthy, an associate professor of marketing at Bryant University in Smithfield, Rhode Island, and a global supply chain expert.
"Consumers can expect the Black Friday discounts to be modest compared to past years. Retailers will either offer smaller percent discounts or discount a smaller selection of items," McCarthy says.
Still, it's not all bad. There will be good deals to find if you have a favorite store where you tend to shop often.
"Retailers will also turn to their loyalty programs and offer tiered discounts, with the more generous discounts offered to their most loyal customers," McCarthy says.
More Curbside Service
Making things as convenient as possible for shoppers is a trend that's been around for some time, especially since the pandemic hit. Expect it to continue, says Trae Bodge, a New York City-based shopping consultant who runs the shopping blog TrueTrae.com.
"Retailers are going to try and make shopping as convenient as they can for customers," Bodge says.
While we aren't likely to see drones dropping off packages just yet, "deals will be available both online and in store, and more stores will offer services like curbside pickup," Bodge says.
"Because consumers will be shopping earlier -- to avoid shipping delays and stock issues -- I also expect to see more retailers offering price-matching and buy now, pay later services like Afterpay, which, to me, is like the new layaway," she says.
Consumers Embrace Experiential Gifts
There is plenty of appeal in giving experiences as gifts as opposed to material things. "Experiential gifts have grown to become increasingly popular over the years, especially as people continue to be hunkered down for the holidays due to the pandemic," says Kristen Gall, a spokesperson for the cash-back website Rakuten.
As examples, she points to a language learning program like Babbel or Rosetta Stone as popular experiential gift ideas. Perhaps you'd like to give your kids or a niece of nephew an education experience like We Craft Box, a monthly craft kit for kids ages 3 to 9, or Spangler Science Club, a monthly subscription box containing interactive science experiments for all ages.
"Quick getaways are also trendy ideas," Gall says.
The not-so-great part of this is that most of Gall's experiential suggestions are monthly subscriptions, which means you'll tax your bank account in the months or years ahead. But the great part is that you're not likely to run into supply chain issues if you're giving someone a package to a bed and breakfast.
Supply Chain Issues as a Marketing Tool
It may not happen, but we should be on guard for this, suggests Wang.
He says retailers will try everything they can to capitalize on the upcoming holiday season, and that "they are leveraging consumers' fear of not wanting to miss out on the shopping season, particularly in the post-pandemic year."
"Expect to see merchants manipulate the ads and discounts to create a sense of urgency for holiday shopping. This will be a perfect opportunity for the merchants to clear out the less popular items in their inventory," Wang says.
So be on the lookout for manipulative ads. "Identify what you really need and don't settle for things that don't fit your bill just because of the fear of missing out," Wang says. "The idea of trying to avoid impulse purchases is always relevant, but it might be more applicable this year as we see the interaction of multiple events that aid to the shopping frenzy."
Stores May Stay Fairly Well-Stocked
After all of the alarm over supply chain issues, don't be surprised if everything turns out just fine. When it comes to her holiday shopping predictions, McCarthy isn't a Scrooge.
"Many larger retailers such as Walmart, Target, Home Depot, Costco, and Ikea charted entire ocean cargo vessels rather than trying to secure container capacity on another carrier's vessel," McCarthy says.
You might be thinking of seeing news reports of ships stuck at the ports, however. That is a big problem for many retailers and companies, but McCarthy says another advantage of big corporations chartering cargo vessels is their ability to bypass the bottlenecks at primary ports of entry such as Long Beach, Los Angeles, and Savannah, where a backlog of up to 60 ships are queuing in a line waiting to be offloaded.
"The retailer-chartered vessels are using smaller ports to offload. These smaller ports typically take longer to offload and process containers, but that delay is far shorter than the several days to weeks delays experienced at the primary ports," McCarthy says.
Many brands that aren't as big as, say, Walmart -- think Nordstrom, Gap, Kohls and Lululemon -- can fly merchandise to the U.S. and bypass the ports, according to McCarthy.
Unfortunately, McCarthy says, "Air freight is eight to 10 times more expensive than ocean cargo and is therefore only feasible for higher-margin goods such as apparel and computers."
That's the type of factor that can limit steeply discounted merchandise.
But if McCarthy is correct, at least there will be a lot of items on the shelves, and she also believes there will be a lot of post-holiday sales to look forward to.
"For those that can wait until January, expect to see some very deep discounts as retailers look to clear out late-arriving inventory," McCarthy says.