Inflation and inventory challenges set a subdued tone for the 2022 holiday season before it even truly started. Discretionary spending came under pressure just as retailers were preparing for their most important quarter, and profits were doubly hit by inventory pileups at major retailers including Target and Adidas.
Early results from Black Friday and Cyber Monday, however, showed that shoppers kept spending, even if it meant turning to financing options. As in years past, there was a mix of in-store and online purchase behavior, with the National Retail Federation pointing to 72.9 million shoppers heading into stores on Black Friday and Adobe Analytics tracking a record $11.3 billion spent on Cyber Monday.
That meant retailers were investing both in stores and in digital channels over the course of the season, touting order pickup options, testing virtual experiences, and bolstering the in-store environment with partnerships and fresh assortments.
As retailers kick off 2023, here’s a look back at the trends that shaped this holiday season.
1. A cautious consumer
Escalating prices on essentials like groceries and gas made for a cautious consumer this year. Throughout 2022 shoppers did keep spending, but year-over-year sales increases in many discretionary categories failed to keep up with inflation, driving down the volume of goods sold. In a year when vaccines and boosters made gathering safer, many consumers also prioritized experiences like travel, events and special occasions.
As the year wore on, dwindling financial reserves from the government’s support during the height of the pandemic made consumers that much more reluctant to spend. By the time November’s retail sales report showed up, it was clear that consumers were slow to buy unless there was a deal, according to several analysts’ research. Executives at Macy’s and Nordstrom in early December reported a noticeable retreat on the part of shoppers.
“There’s some calendar reasons for holiday to be pushed back a bit,” Nordstrom CEO Erik Nordstrom said at Morgan Stanley’s Consumer & Retail Conference. “But I do think there’s something in the environment, a promotional environment where customers are pulling back.”
All this has remained true through the holidays, making discounts key to coaxing shoppers. Promotional activity has been more intense this season than last, and that is set to last into the new year, according to Fitch Senior Director David Silverman.
2. The metaverse takes center stage
Retailers weren’t shy about launching activations in the metaverse this year, and that momentum didn’t stop during the holidays.
Department store veteran Bloomingdale’s even took a step out of reality this season, with a virtual activation where consumers could explore themed spaces such as a Ralph Lauren forest and a Nespresso cafe.
Macy’s brought its iconic Thanksgiving Day Parade to the metaverse this year, which included an NFT voting contest where the winning design would be brought to real life as a float in next year’s physical event.
And while Macy’s wasn’t the only company to amp up virtual events this season (Pacsun, for example, launched its PacVerse holiday campaign in November), its move represents one of the bigger trends from the past few months: connecting metaverse experiences with real-world benefits or goods.
Earlier in December, beauty brand Laura Mercier created a virtual store where users could shop for products in Parisian-themed rooms, and it kicked off the launch with a livestream shopping event. Forever 21 also expanded its deep ties to the virtual world Roblox by releasing a physical fashion collection inspired by its in-game products.
3. Black Friday discounts were earlier, and deeper
Holiday sales started earlier this year, weeks ahead of Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
Driven in part by industrywide inventory bloat, top retailers – including Amazon, Target and Walmart – announced some Black Friday deals a month and a half before the traditional start of the holiday shopping season. Fifty-six percent of consumers surveyed by the NRF said they took advantage of early holiday deals before Thanksgiving.
One possible reason is that consumers feel ongoing economic and inflation-driven pressure. As a result, more shoppers used credit cards or chose the option to buy now, pay later on Black Friday. Forty-eight percent of respondents surveyed by Deloitte said they planned to pay for Black Friday purchases with credit cards. Thirty seven percent of those surveyed planned to buy now and pay later. Inflation’s impact was felt on Cyber Monday as well, as discounts were deeper and online spending exceeded predictions, analysts said.
All those changes showed up in a noticeable way on Black Friday. In the third pandemic-era holiday shopping season, packed parking lots and long, early morning lines at brick-and-mortar stores seemed like a distant memory. Yet, in-person shoppers in the new normal drove a nearly 3% uptick in foot traffic for stores, according to Forbes.
4. The rise of buy now, pay later
Consumers this season have been reaching for various means of financing their holiday shopping.
Buy now, pay later services have been an overall winner of the 2022 season, as shoppers have used the feature to pay for lower-priced goods instead of high-ticket items. The average order value for BNPL purchases decreased in the U.S. by 6% on Thanksgiving, according to Salesforce.
During Cyber Week, which Adobe counts as Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday, BNPL orders increased by 85% compared to the week prior, and revenue increased 88%. From Black Friday to Cyber Monday Afterpay, a BNPL provider, saw transactions rise 120% compared to before the holiday.
Experts have warned that BNPL demand signals consumers’ financial instability. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau this fall issued one of the federal government's first comprehensive reports on the expanding consumer use of the service.
The most surprising consumer trend, though, may be a pull back on the number of gifts purchased at all. A recent Forbes Advisor poll found that more than half (51%) of shoppers were planning to purchase fewer gifts in response to inflation. Nearly three-quarters of the 1,000 shoppers surveyed said they would buy traditional physical presents, but 25% were making homemade presents and 21% were gifting experiences.
5. Retailers boosted the in-store experience to drive traffic
Retailers brought the experiences to stores this year to help drive traffic during the all-important holiday season.
Some touted their in-store services — including Nordstrom, which offered gift wrapping, in-store pickup and assistance from stylists — while others hosted events to draw in crowds — like Casper, which hosted a film screening with Netflix at one of its stores.
Retailers also leaned on partnerships to entice consumers. Macy’s announced a partnership with Kylie Cosmetics in which the department store would sell a limited-edition collection from the brand. And Target not only announced a multiyear tie-up with FAO Schwarz, which includes offering exclusive products from the toymaker on the mass merchant’s website and in its stores, but also tripled its number of Apple shop-in-shops ahead of the holiday season.
While the past two years were muted by COVID-19 and new variants, this year more consumers took to stores on one of the biggest shopping days of the year. According to data from the NRF, in-store Black Friday traffic was up by more than 6 million consumers year over year.