How retailers are preparing for an early holiday shopping season – and last-minute shoppers

Meeting customers when and where they want to shop is just the beginning
Peter Johnston
NRF Contributor

Every year for at least a decade, U.S. consumers have been starting their holiday buying earlier than they did the year before, both to stretch out their budgets and to avoid — or at least try to lessen — the stress of holiday shopping. In 2011, according to figures compiled by NRF and Prosper Insights and Analytics, 51% of surveyed consumers said they had started their shopping by early November. The share of early shoppers has increased steadily since; in 2021 it was up to 61%.

Retailers are of course aware of this, and are expecting the pattern to continue in 2022. We asked retailers how they were preparing. Earlier stocking? New sales and promotion tactics? And, of course, no matter how many people plan and shop early, there will always be consumers who delay until the holidays are right on top of them. What are retailers doing to make life easier for this year’s army of shoppers?

Holiday shopping

Take a closer look at how consumers are shopping for holidays this year.

It starts in October

“As we’ve seen over the past couple of holiday seasons, customers are shopping earlier than ever,” says Laura Rush, senior vice president, electronics, toys and seasonal for Walmart. “We know that this year, over half of our customers will start their holiday shopping research in October and, as with years past, we expect a steady shopping cadence throughout the season. Because of this, we announced our Top Toy List at the end of August to help families plan ahead.”

As to the inevitable last-minute shoppers, Rush says, “Walmart customers can feel confident that no matter when they choose to shop, we will have the gifts they want most this season in stock and delivered when they need them.”

Macy’s is expecting much the same. “We expect holiday shopping will start in October, similarly to the past two years,” says Nata Dvir, chief merchandising officer at Macy’s. “Our strength as an omnichannel retailer is that we’re able to meet customers wherever and however they want to shop. As a leading style and gifting destination, we know that our customers are looking for new and exciting brands and products.”

During the holiday season, Dvir says, over half of Macy’s inventory will be new — the highest rate in recent history. “We have curated a relevant, on-trend and inclusive assortment to take the guesswork out of holiday shopping,” she says.

Easy gifting

Another firm devoted to reducing the guesswork in holiday shopping — to eliminate it, in fact — is GiftNow. “We are a path to purchase that eliminates some of the friction in the buying process for somebody who wants to send a gift,” says John Grech, the company’s chief commercial officer.

GiftNow is a purchase option for a number of both direct-to-consumer brands and traditional retailers, among them Crocs, Michael Kors, Coach, Kate Spade, TaylorMade and David Yurman. The platform allows gift-givers to select an item and send a message to the recipient, saying in essence, “I was thinking about you and wanted to get you a gift.” If the recipient would rather have another item from the brand, they can make that decision before shipment.

“It makes the purchase a lot easier,” Grech says, “because they can never get it wrong. The giftee can say, you know what, I’m going to pass on the hat. I’ll take the $38 in value and buy myself a scarf.”

Consumer trends

Explore the different consumer trends that retailers are seeing this shopping season.

Meanwhile, the seller — the brand or retailer handling the transaction — is waiting for the gift recipient to provide a delivery address, make changes in the gift itself and thus finalize the sale. Only then is the gift shipped to the recipient. The transformation — which ordinarily would have involved a return and reshipment — takes place, Grech says, “before a box ever leaves the warehouse and before a retailer takes it on the chin on reverse logistics.”

Capturing the moment

For both giver and receiver, the important moment in all this is the gifting itself — the receipt of the note from the giver saying, “I’ve sent you a gift.” As Grech explains it, there are several advantages in this, one of which is the lack of hurry.

“Retailers sending a gift, especially at the last minute, will often subsidize expedited shipping, which is not cheap,” he says. “With GiftNow that goes away. We always ship the recipient’s final selection the most economical way possible, because there’s no urgency. The moment has already happened.”

Another potential advantage to the retailer is the possibility of customer acquisition. “If you’re Coach or Kate Spade,” Grech says, “your house file is probably 90-plus percent female, with an average household income of X. The reality is that the gifting customer is probably going to over-index in being male and shopping maybe one or two times a year with you. He was never worth your marketing to before, but now you have a proposition to go after him with.”

Change is coming

Targeting and catering to a company’s best customers should be at the core of marketing, says Peter Fader, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. In his consulting work, and in his more recent publications, he focuses on the idea of using high-powered data analysis to sort a company’s customers in terms of their present and future value.

Fader believes the 2022 holiday season — as attested by all available evidence — will be like the 2021 holiday season, only a bit more so. Looking out further, though, he sees a change coming.

“I am optimistic that a lot of this holiday madness will become an anachronism,” he says. “Twenty years from now, when we have the data analytics capability and the courage to teach in the right way, people will look back and say, ‘What were you thinking?’”

Related content

Mother’s Day 2024 is all about the classics
A mother and daughter celebrating Mother's Day.
With a return to timeless gifts like flowers and special outings, consumers plan to spend an average of $254 per person.
Read more
A glance into consumers’ views on sustainability
Earth Day
New GfK research finds most Americans say concern for the environment is a priority.
Read more
Highlights from NRF’s 2024 State of Retail & the Consumer
Customers shopping
Insights into the future outlook of the retail industry.
Read more