Omnichannel Fulfillment, BNPL and Social Commerce Contributed to Holiday 2021’s Digital Success

Most experts expected holiday 2021 to be a digital success, and the season didn’t disappoint: global sales hit $1.14 trillion, up from $1.1 trillion in 2020, while U.S. sales reached $257 billion, up from $236 billion, according to data from Salesforce. Additionally, total order count was up almost 10.45% from holiday 2020 levels, according to data from Klaviyo.

Notably, the highest spending levels came at the beginning and end of the season. As a result, Cyber Week 2021 accounted for 23% of total ecommerce spend, down slightly from 24% in 2020. Shoppers started early, with 30% of global holiday sales completed by Nov. 22, but another 23% of sales were made during the home stretch between Dec. 18 and Dec. 31.

The early-season surge can be attributed to shoppers’ awareness of potential shipping delays, which also made omnichannel fulfillment a winning solution during that final rush: stores with curbside or in-store pickup options captured 62% of global sales during the Dec. 18-31 window.

“In the final weeks leading up to Christmas and post-Christmas, we saw digital sales spike again,” said Rob Garf, VP and GM of Retail at Salesforce in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “It was retailers that were able to bridge the physical and digital experience that found the most success in the final few weeks of the season. As consumers grew concerned around the emerging Omicron variant and wanted to order past shipping cutoff dates, retailers who were able to sell an item online and fulfill the order via curbside or in-store pickup captured a larger percentage of these late-season sales.”


The importance of BOPIS and curbside were reflected in Sensormatic’s list of the holiday season’s busiest days: six out of the top 10 days were in the week leading up to Christmas, and shoppers’ need to ensure they got their gifts in time made pickup options particularly attractive.

“Shipping cutoffs with USPS, UPS, FedEx and others all happened around Dec. 15,” said Peter McCall, Senior Manager, Retail Consulting and Advanced Analytics at Sensormatic in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “Now you’re in your final 10 days of the season, so you can’t necessarily rely on getting that item. If you can’t guarantee that it’s going to be in hand by relying on delivery, it pushes a good amount of traffic into stores.”

The relationship between digital and physical traffic went both ways throughout the season. Salesforce found that 60% of global digital sales were influenced by brick-and-mortar experiences. The ability to visit stores to get a more tactile feel for potential gifts was a powerful sales driver, even if many transactions were ultimately completed online.

BNPL and Social Commerce Were Holiday Standouts

Shoppers have been embracing modern technology and services throughout the pandemic, and this trend continued during the holidays. Two of the key technologies this season were:

  • Artificial Intelligence: 19% of all orders included a product that had been recommended to the shopper by an AI-powered solution; and
  • Digital Wallets: Usage of alternative payments forms including PayPal, Apple Pay and Google Pay increased by 15% year-over-year in the U.S.

But when it came to alternative payments, BNPL was the star. Usage was up by 40% compared to holiday 2020, while credit card usage dropped 5%. The surge in BNPL was attributed to higher prices overall, due to 25% year-over-year price inflation and lower overall promotional discounts. Garf noted that “as these headwinds persist into 2022, it’s safe to say we’ll continue to see broad usage of BNPL.”

Additionally, mobile devices played an even greater role than in the past. Klaviyo found that its retail partners sent more than 132 million messages during the 2021 holiday season — 10X the amount sent in 2020. This was a strong indication of omnichannel approaches to grabbing shoppers’ attention, whether for promotions or notifications.

Social commerce played a small but significant role in terms of mobile sales. Salesforce found that 4% of global digital sales made on mobile devices were placed through social media apps, and 10% of mobile traffic originated from social media networks. The search for holiday inspiration likely gave some shoppers their first taste of social commerce, and retailers should be prepared for interest to continue growing in the coming year.

“Social commerce fits into what I call ‘shopping at the edge,’ where consumers start — and even complete — their shopping journey away from a brand or retail store or website,” said Garf. “Consumers live on their phones, and pushing your brand experience and checkout to these social networks helps remove the friction that a consumer encounters between discovery and purchase. Social commerce is not a distraction from consumers’ daily routines, but actually a convenience that shoppers will continue to look for this year. Retailers would be smart to keep up with demand and continue to find different commerce channels into the metaverse and beyond.”

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