Winter Holiday FAQs

A blue door with a holiday wreath hanging

Why has NRF delayed its outlook for the 2020 holiday season?

In a year full of uncertainty, this holiday season will be historic and unprecedented, with no previous playbook to follow. We are waiting to release our holiday forecast until we have more solid data to make more reliable projections, likely in November. In the meantime, we recently launched a holiday campaign called “New Holiday Traditions” that encourages consumers to shop safe and shop early this year to ensure everyone has a happy and healthy holiday season. Shopping early will help consumers avoid the last-minute stresses of the holiday season, like long lines and shipping delays. Learn more about the campaign here.

What does NRF classify as the winter holidays?

In terms of retail spending, the winter holidays include the months of November and December and cover events such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. This year, given the extended shopping time period, holiday sales are expected to extend to the full fourth quarter of 2020.

How much have holiday sales grown in the last few years?

Holiday sales during November and December 2019 grew 4 percent over the year before to $729.1 billion.


What percentage of annual retail sales do the holidays represent?

Overall, holiday sales in November and December have averaged about 19 percent of annual retail sales over the last five years, but the figure can be higher for some retailers. In addition, holiday sales can be more profitable because the increased volume of purchases comes without significantly increasing retailers’ fixed costs of doing business.

What percentage of holiday sales occur online?

Ecommerce accounted for 20.1 percent of total holiday sales in 2019. During the pandemic, online and other non-store sales have increased and retailers are planning for a greater portion of their sales to come from ecommerce this year.

How many extra jobs does the retail industry create during the holiday season?

NRF has not set a release date for our 2020 holiday data, including holiday hiring. The disruption caused by the pandemic has resulted in unprecedented swings in many economic variables, particularly employment. Last year the retail industry employed an estimated 562,000 individuals to fill holiday positions during November and December. NRF recently conducted a survey of 54 retailers about their plans for the 2020 holiday shopping season. About half of those surveyed indicated plans to hire additional in-store staff, while over three in four will do the same for their distribution and fulfillment centers. It is important to note that with the increase in online consumer spending, some seasonal retail jobs will support ecommerce activities. Many of these ecommerce-related jobs are in fulfillment and distribution, which are not counted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as retail employment.

How does NRF define retail sales?

Retail sales, as defined by NRF, include both store-based and online purchases in a broad range of retail categories including discount stores, department stores, grocers and specialty stores, but exclude purchases at automotive dealers, gasoline stations and restaurants.

What is the difference between holiday retail sales data and NRF’s consumer holiday surveys?

Retail sales figures are calculated by NRF based on data reported from the U.S. Census Bureau. NRF tallies retail sales — excluding automobile dealers, gasoline stations and restaurants — typically covering the time period between November 1 through December 31 to determine holiday sales. Given the unusual circumstances of 2020, holiday sales are expected to extend to the full fourth quarter of 2020 and we will adjust our analysis as needed. Sales during these months not only include traditional holiday purchases but also items not specifically for holiday celebrations. Separately, Prosper Insights & Analytics conducts surveys for NRF based on what consumers say they plan to do over the entire holiday season, including how much they plan to spend specifically on holiday items.

Why do retailers put holiday merchandise on the shelves so early?

Each year about 40 percent of consumers begin their holiday shopping before Halloween. And retailers have responded accordingly. Given the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic this year, retailers are stocking their holiday merchandise earlier and jump-starting seasonal promotions and deals so consumers can shop safely and shop earlier to avoid the last-minute stresses of long lines and shipping delays.

What role do Cyber Monday and Black Friday play in the holiday season?

Black Friday and Cyber Monday are part of the five-day shopping event that begins on Thanksgiving Day and continues through the following Monday. Typically, these five days represent some of the busiest shopping days of the year as consumers browse and buy online, in stores and, increasingly, on smartphones and other mobile devices. However, given the restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, retailers are adapting their strategies to ensure they are serving customers safely and effectively. Some are choosing to close on Thanksgiving Day; others are offering several months of “Black Friday” deals; and others will be featuring the same deals both in-stores and online throughout the holiday season to allow consumers to spread out their shopping.  

Is NRF affiliated with Small Business Saturday?

NRF is not officially affiliated with Small Business Saturday but supports any initiative to recognize the millions of small retail business establishments and their contributions to the economy and their communities. An estimated 90 percent of all U.S. retail companies employ 100 people or fewer.

What’s the difference between shopping and purchasing?

NRF defines shopping as browsing items with the intent to purchase, whether online or in stores. Purchasing is the act of actually buying a product.

Why have retailers changed their return policies?

Some retailers make return policies more lenient during the holiday season, understanding that there can be a lag time between when a gift is purchased and received. However, many retailers have also begun to change their return policies to account for an increase in return fraud.