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Cyber Week 2021 Was Slow, but Retail is Still on Track for a Record-Breaking Holiday Season

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In another sign that Black Friday, and to some extent the entire extended Thanksgiving weekend, has ceded its position as a truly peak shopping period, Black Friday 2021 was a mixed bag for retailers. Store traffic was 47.5% higher than 2020’s, although it was not yet back up to 2019 levels (Black Friday 2021 was down 28.3% from 2019, according to Sensormatic Solutions).

On the digital, side, reports from two major data sources conflicted: Adobe Analytics reported that online sales were down 1.3% to $8.9 billion (compared to $9 billion last year), while Salesforce recorded a 5% increase to $13.4 billion. The rest of Cyber Week (Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday) followed a similar pattern, with Adobe Analytics reporting total online sales of $33.9 billion, down 1.4% year-over-year. In contrast, Salesforce reported 1% growth on Thanksgiving, to $6.9 billion, and 3% growth on Cyber Monday, to $11.3 billion.

The total number of shoppers, both online and in-person, declined by more than 6 million to 179.8 million, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF), compared to 186.4 million shoppers in 2020.

However, even these negative data points aren’t necessarily bad news for retail as a whole. The drop in sales for this specific time period can be attributed to promotions being spread out across October and November, and even this year’s lower number of total shoppers was ahead of earlier NRF projections. In other words, the 2021 holiday season is still on track for major success.

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I continue to believe this will be the strongest margin quarter retailers have ever had,” said Deborah Weinswig, CEO and Founder of Coresight Research in commentary provided to Retail TouchPoints.

Shoppers Found Fewer Discounts and a Smaller Selection

Retailers held back on price promotions in 2021 compared to previous Cyber Weeks: the average selling price was up 11% in the U.S. and 5% globally versus 2020, according to Salesforce. Additionally, the average product discount was 26% in the U.S., down 8% year-over-year. Both Publicis Sapient and Salesforce predicted smaller discounts earlier in the year as a result of rising costs.

The other reason for less-than-exciting sales during the Black Friday-Cyber Monday (BFCM) period was the elongated holiday season, which retailers have been “stretching” both to ease last mile delays and to forestall potential disappointment due to out-of-stocks as the holidays grow nearer. Walmart, Amazon and Target launched their seasonal promotions as early as October, and shoppers responded: consumers had already spent a total of $99.1 billion from Nov. 1 to Nov. 28, up 13.6% year-over-year, according to Adobe Analytics.

“With early deals in October, consumers were not waiting around for discounts on big shopping days like Cyber Monday and Black Friday,” said Taylor Schreiner, Director at Adobe Digital Insights in commentary provided to Retail TouchPoints. “This was further fueled by growing awareness of supply chain challenges and product availability. It spread out ecommerce spending across the months of October and November, putting us on track for a season that still will break online shopping records.” 

Shoppers also were faced with a smaller selection than in the past. The number of products being sold online over Cyber Week fell 6% in the U.S. compared to last year, according to Salesforce. In comparison, digital product catalogs grew 5% year-over-year in 2020.

Small Business Saturday was a Small Success

Small businesses saw mixed results during Cyber Week. People shopped at small businesses 36% more often than last year and spent 58% more overall, according to data from Klaviyo. Additionally, average order value at these retailers increased by 16%. Quantum Metric reported 27% higher traffic on Small Business Saturday, which fell on Nov. 27 this year, compared to the average November shopping day.  

However, Adobe noted that large retailers (those with more than $1 billion in annual revenue) saw 11% higher digital sales growth on Small Business Saturday over October compared to small retailers ($10 million to $50 million in annual revenue). These bigger retailers’ larger product catalogs gave them an advantage during a year marked by shortages and delays, since they were more likely to have comparable products to offer even if the first item a shopper sought was unavailable.

Lower Shopper Expectations Meant Lower Consumer Frustration (but More Abandoned Carts)

While shoppers scouring the web for deals can be easily deterred by out-of-stocks and other forms of friction, only 3.7% of shoppers felt frustrated during ecommerce shopping in 2021, compared to 6.2% in 2020, according to Quantum Metric. Additionally, frustration levels rose just 8% on Black Friday 2021 compared to the average day, while Black Friday 2020 saw a 35% increase in frustration over the average.

Generally, less shopper frustration is a positive, but the data indicated that lower expectations — and of more concern, a willingness to abandon a purchase — was behind these results. Quantum Metric found that 62% of shoppers had already experienced more out-of-stock issues in 2021 than in 2020. Additionally, November out-of-stock messages were up 227% compared to January 2020 and 261% compared to November 2019, according to data from Adobe Analytics.

“Lower frustration levels are the result of lowered expectations from consumers, who have been reading the news and anticipating out-of-stock issues,” said Elissa Quinby, Director of Retail Insights at Quantum Metric in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “We are also seeing less frustration because many consumers are more likely to leave and abandon a cart full of items when they reach a roadblock. In fact, our data shows the percentage of retail traffic that abandoned before checkout almost doubled for November, when compared to 2020.”

Quinby noted that because brand loyalty isn’t the force it once was, retailers need to deliver on personalization and seamless shopping experiences for the remainder of the holiday season to both win sales and develop a deeper form of loyalty that will persist into the future.

Curbside Options Remain Sales Drivers, Proving the Importance of a Physical Presence

Shoppers were clearly aware of potential last mile delays, and this was reflected in their delivery choices. On Black Friday, orders placed at retailers with curbside or in-store options were 50% higher in the U.S. than at retailers without these options, according to Salesforce.

The trend carried over to Cyber Monday, when average cart size for curbside pickup grew to $95 from $79 in 2020, according to Shopify. Adobe found that curbside pickup was chosen for 18% of all orders placed on Cyber Monday among retailers that offer the service, down only slightly from the 20% figure in 2020, showcasing “durable demand” for the option.

Shoppers in general were more willing to head out to stores than in 2020, but the weather kept foot traffic down in many regions. Temperatures were low throughout Cyber Week in multiple major metro areas, according to Planalytics:

  • New York City, Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore each trended much colder than last year;
  • Detroit, Cleveland, Nashville and Memphis, Tenn. had their coldest holiday weekends since 2013; and
  • Chicago, Minneapolis, Miami and Orlando, Fla. were their coldest holiday weekends since 2014.

However, colder weather offered an opportunity for indoor shopping. Brian Ehrig, Partner in the Retail Practice of Kearney, reported that the Mall at Green Hills in Nashville looked like a “normal pre-pandemic shopping day” on Black Friday — not quite the rush of years past, but a significant recovery from the depths of the pandemic.

“It was a positive sign to see traffic back to pre-pandemic levels in an indoor mall setting,” said Ehrig in commentary provided to Retail TouchPoints. “Now, if we can build up the in-stock levels and build more resilient supply chains, things could be looking up for retailers.”

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