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8 Trends in store for Black Friday and Cyber Monday 2021

illustration of a person holding several shopping bags

[Updated, October 2021]

It’s that time of year again – and this time, Black Friday and Cyber Monday are taking no prisoners. Whether retailers will survive or thrive during the upcoming 2021 holiday season hinges on one key trait: Flexibility.

As consumers and merchants alike continue to adjust to the realities of post-pandemic retail, enabling greater choice and control over the shopping experience will be key. Whether it’s earlier access to seasonal products or enhanced omnichannel shopping capabilities, consumers are expecting brands to eliminate friction at every touchpoint.

So without further ado, here are the 8 trends set to underpin BFCM and the 2021 holiday season:

1. Earlier access to seasonal inventory and promotions 

So-called ‘doorbuster’ deals and tight shopping windows have been swapped out in favor of promoting deals online and in-store for longer periods, building on the earlier start to the retail holiday season we saw in 2020.

Stores including Home Depot, Target, and Bed Bath & Beyond were among the many retailers last year who chose to spread out their BFCM deals throughout the month of November and up until Christmas, with some starting as early as October. This was partly due to Amazon’s decision to move Prime Day from July to October 2020, which caused major retailers to follow suit with their own promotions.

In 2021, we can once again expect holiday shopping activity to start early due to ongoing supply chain disruption that has consumers fighting to secure the products they want. A survey by Sitecore found that 34% of consumers planned to start their holiday shopping by Labor Day – a clear sign ‘Black Friday’ weekend no longer heralds the start of the holiday season.

The effects of a longer holiday season last year were clear: A National Retail Federation survey found that 69% of holiday shoppers were able to find everything they wanted all or most of the time, while 84% were confident they would receive their online orders in time for the holidays. 

Moving away from a short, intense peak also has benefits for retailers, who are under immense pressure to make hay while the sun shines. It enables merchants to manage supply chain issues more effectively and be responsive to ongoing challenges involving freight. 

2. Ecommerce is set to rule (again)

While the retail sector has settled into a ‘new normal’ with physical stores open once again, the 2021 holiday season is set to be dominated by digital. Although foot traffic is gradually recovering, Shopkick’s 2021 survey found that 57% of consumers still plan to do the majority of their shopping online this holiday season.

The reasons for this are varied. Some consumers still feel anxious about returning to in-store shopping, while others prefer to take advantage of seasonal promotions online. 2021 BFCM forecasts show that 78% of consumers plan to shop online over the holiday weekend, while just 64% plan to venture into stores. 

Merchants need to be prepared to handle this extra pressure on their online store and fulfillment operations to prevent delays in order processing and delivery. Using a scalable fulfillment strategy with the capability to handle the peaks and troughs of the holiday season is key to increasing customer satisfaction.

For more on this topic, check out our full post on why ecommerce is going to rule the 2021 holiday season.

3. Safe indoor shopping environments

The confidence felt earlier this summer due to rising vaccination rates has been curtailed as we head into the Fall. Thanks to the rise of the Delta variant, many consumers have reverted back to habits such as mask-wearing and social distancing – and they want retailers to do the same. 

A recent survey found that 47% of respondents are worried about shopping in-store due to Delta. What’s more, an overwhelming 70% say they expect retailers to enforce safety precautions in-store.

The verdict is clear: If you want to boost in-store shopping this holiday season, consumers need to feel safe while doing it.

Contactless shopping methods, capacity limits, and even appointment-based shopping are all offerings that appeal to the safety-conscious shopper. Combined with the use of plexiglass screens and in-store mask regulations, you can create an environment that boosts customer confidence. 

4. Buy Now, Pay Later (BNPL)

The Buy Now, Pay Later (BNPL) model has seen stratospheric growth during 2021 due to its simple and compelling value proposition: Why pay for a purchase in full if you don’t have to? 

In the world of digital commerce, it’s no longer enough for online payment options to be limited just to Visa and Mastercard. Studies show that younger consumers are moving away from credit cards in favor of debit-based options, with 60% of millennials and Gen Z viewing credit cards as ‘too risky’.  

BNPL has been labeled the savior of the pandemic-plagued 2020 holiday season when consumer confidence was reaching an all-time low. Afterpay reported that U.S. sales in Q4 last year were up 30% compared with the same period in 2019. A study by BNPL provider Affirm found that its customers saw an average increase of 20% in conversion and 87% in average order values.

According to Forbes, the BNPL market is set to hit $100 billion in 2021 – up from just $24 billion last year. In sum, adopting a Buy Now, Pay Later option is less about getting ahead, and more about making sure that your business doesn’t fall behind. With marketplace penetration growing at a rapid rate, it’s never been easier for consumers to vet retailers based on BNPL availability.

Check out our dedicated post on the pros and cons of BNPL for retailers for more info.

5. BORIS (Buy Online, Return In-Store)

While online shopping is designed to be as easy and seamless as possible for consumers, the returns process is not. Whether it’s having to pay for return shipping and packaging or waiting for weeks to obtain a refund, a poor post-purchase experience reduces the odds of a holiday shopper becoming a repeat customer.

Moreover, return volumes undergo a massive spike in early January as gifts are exchanged or returned. It’s estimated that 13.3% percent of the total merchandise sold during the 2020 holiday season ended up being returned. The result is returned items piling up in distribution centers, delaying refunds and reducing resale opportunities for retailers. 

BORIS (Buy Online, Return In-Store) removes friction from the returns experience and enables retailers to make refunds and have items back on the shelf almost instantly. Best of all, in-store returns give customers more reasons to spend time in your stores. 

According to Google, omnichannel retail tactics like BORIS result in an 80% higher rate of incremental store visits. Processing returns and refunds in the same transaction also presents some great upselling opportunities for your store associates.

6. Free shipping

Consumer expectations for free shipping are old news, but they’re set to be non-negotiable this holiday season. According to a holiday survey by Shopkick, a whopping 94% of customers said that free shipping was the perk they wanted most when shopping online this holiday season, outstripping fast shipping (60%) by a wide margin.

This is an interesting finding, considering the massive focus placed on rapid shipping capabilities during the pandemic. But with many customers still watching their wallets amid a tough economic outlook, it’s not surprising that price is proving to be the biggest determining factor in conversions.

However, merchants are set to face a huge burden this year in the form of peak season surcharges targeting residential delivery. Merchants will need to manage customer expectations very carefully and look for alternative ways to offset the additional costs of offering free shipping. Implementing a free shipping threshold or introducing a paid shipping program are great ways to prevent free shipping from eroding your profit margins.

For more on offering free shipping during the holiday season, check out our full guide.

7. Social commerce

Rather than redirecting customers to an external ecommerce website (and potentially losing some along the way) social commerce enables brands to offer end-to-end browsing and purchasing functionalities through the platform itself. 

Social commerce has gained widespread popularity because this is where consumers are already discovering and browsing brands and products. 79% of people say that social media content has a big impact on their purchasing decisions, while nearly half of millennials and Gen Z between the ages of 18-34 have already made a purchase through social media.

Social commerce will be a key tool this holiday season to increase your selling presence where prospective customers already are. As demand for frictionless shopping grows, social commerce is the ultimate funnel to turn followers into loyal customers.

8. AR/VR tools to aid purchasing decisions

Many consumers have been forced to rely on ecommerce for their purchases over the past year and a half thanks to the pandemic. 71% of consumers say they’ve been making more online purchases during the pandemic, while over two-thirds (67%) say that over half of their shopping took place online in the past year.

But while online shopping offers convenience and flexibility, being unable to test/try products ahead of purchasing can be a significant point of friction in the shopping experience. As a result, there’s been an uptick in consumer demand for augmented reality tools that assist with purchasing decisions. With online shopping set to reign supreme once again this holiday season, retailers need to be thinking of ways to streamline the shopping for their customers. 

Almost half (44%) of consumers say that they’re interested in using AR/VR tools this holiday season, while 91% of respondents to a Chain Store Age retailer survey say plan to enhance their VR offerings by the end of 2021. 

This year’s Black Friday and Cyber Monday is set to be an expansion of the pandemic-fuelled trends we experienced in 2020. Ecommerce continues to be the channel of choice of the majority of consumers, especially when it comes to taking advantage of seasonal promotions. 

Due to ongoing supply chain challenges, consumers are eager to start their holiday shopping earlier than ever in an effort to secure favored products. By meeting demand with tailored inventory, merchants can boost conversions and take pressure off the so-called ‘peak of the peak’.

By investing in more flexible retailing, from additional selling channels to payment options and return policies, merchants can eliminate friction from the shopping journey and enhance the customer experience – paving the way for stronger brand loyalty into 2022 and beyond.

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