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December 22, 2021

Season’s fleeting: Why in-store holiday shopping didn’t live up to the hype

David Vanamburg

The five days from Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday are among the busiest shopping days of the year. 2021 was no exception.

Roughly 180 million Americans shopped during this period, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF). Unsurprisingly, this number is down compared to each of the past two years – 186 million in 2020 and 190 million in 2020 – as consumers began shopping much earlier because of global supply chain issues.

But where things get interesting is when you look closer at how folks are shopping.

Online vs. in-store shopping: What direction is traffic flowing?

It’s common knowledge that most customers prefer to do their shopping online, and the numbers reflect as much.

This year, there were 130 million online shoppers over the five-day period. However, that’s 10% less than 2020 when 145 million bought goods online. Brick-and-mortar, on the other hand, saw traffic move in the other direction.

In 2019, just 90 million Americans went to the stores. This year, 105 million did their shopping in person. While it’s considerably less than the 124 million in-store shoppers from back in 2019, it’s a step in the right direction.

Of course, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Which begs the question: How satisfied were these individuals? That’s a different story.

Swing and a miss for in-store shoppers 

Malls across the country prepared for shoppers to return on Black Friday. Some went bigger than others.

New Jersey’s American Dream – the country’s latest and largest mall – was promising gifts worth as much as $800 to the first 500 shoppers. The Irvine Spectrum in Southern California tried to entice customers with free valet parking, carousel rides, and ice skating.

When they arrived, however, many customers were disappointed – especially in the “deals.”

Shoppers found the bargains were no different than the ones offered online. For example, at Tysons Corner Center in Northern Virginia, stores like H&M and Abercrombie & Fitch were advertising “30% off everything” – which you could get without venturing to the stores.

Once in the store, shoppers had to decide whether buying an item was worth it. At that point, it was often better to take the plunge than risk losing on a desired product. Not an ideal situation. Fortunately, brick-and-mortar stores are evolving.

A modern in-store experience can change the game

The Macy’s and Toys R Us partnership could flip the script on the “shop-in-shop” model. Bloomingdale’s is creating smaller, curated, tech-friendly versions of itself, dubbed “Bloomie’s.” Amazon is bringing the “Just Walk Out” technology to full-size supermarkets. Philly-based delivery service company Gopuff is adding physical locations to its portfolio.

Each of these endeavors are incorporating various elements that have made online the preferred path for shopping. If brick-and-mortar becomes faster, more efficient, tech-centric, and user-friendly, people will be more inclined to step away from their screens and into stores.

While this wasn’t the case this holiday season, there’s always next year. Stay tuned.

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