November 4, 2021

Analysis: The Disruption of the Holiday Shopping Season

By Pattern Data Science / Ecommerce Trends, Insights & Reporting

There’s a chill in the air, the leaves are falling, and the days are growing shorter, so you know what that means: the holiday shopping season is upon us once again.

It’s no surprise that November and December are enormous months for online shopping. It’s not all about Cyber Monday anymore. Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, “Panic Week” — the holiday shopping season has been moving online more and more each year.

Of course, the past year and a half has seen online shopping become even more ubiquitous in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. This got us wondering how the pandemic shaped online holiday shopping behaviors last year, and if early indications suggest that 2021 will be more like 2020, or if we’re seeing a return to pre-pandemic holiday shopping habits.

What were the most popular categories during the holiday shopping season last year? Which items got the biggest holiday bump? Which are the hottest items heading into this year’s shopping season?

We dove deep into our data to answer these questions and more.

What were the most popular items during the holidays in 2020?

We started by taking a broad look at which categories received the biggest increase in demand during the holiday shopping season compared to the rest of the year.

No big surprise here. Online demand for toys and games was up 60% during November and December compared to the rest of the year, more than any other major category in our analysis. Electronics weren’t far behind, with a 55% boost in average demand.

Hiking and camping relies heavily on summertime sales to drive demand, but the category still performed 2% better during the holidays than the average during the rest of the year.

In 2020, only kitchen and dining and home appliances actually saw demand drop below the average for the rest of the year. These may simply be categories where people still prefer to do in-person shopping as opposed to shopping online, or it could be that 2020 was simply a down year for these categories.

We’ll dig a little deeper to answer this question in a moment, but first let’s take a closer look at some popular individual items from our top two categories:

The PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X topped the list of items we analyzed. This comes as no surprise, as both of these brand-new consoles launched in November, making them the hottest holiday gift on millions of shopping lists.

Laptop computers and tablets both saw significant bumps in demand, as did graphics cards and TVs.

Only 2 in 1 laptop and tablet devices saw demand drop during the holiday shopping season compared to the rest of the year.

Finally, let’s examine some major search terms to see which ones got the biggest holiday bump last year:

Crockpots were an incredibly popular holiday gift last year, as the term leapt by 80% in November and December when compared to the average during the rest of the year.

Two major graphics cards and the Nintendo Switch saw the next biggest increases in search volume, reinforcing video games as a holiday shopping behemoth.

Smaller kitchen appliances like waffle makers and coffee makers all saw major boosts in search volume, in contrast to larger appliances like freezers, washing machines, and dishwashers which all saw search volume drop significantly.

While these views show us which items were the hottest during last year’s holiday season, it doesn’t give us much insight into what kind of impact COVID-19 had (if any) on the holiday shopping season.

So let’s now compare the holiday shopping season last year with 2019.

Did COVID-19 change online demand for popular categories last year?

To better understand how COVID-19 may have impacted online holiday shopping habits last year, we compared online demand during the months of November and December 2020 to the same months in 2019.

First, let’s examine the change in demand for our major categories:

All major categories saw demand increase in 2020 compared to 2019. Kitchen and Dining actually saw the largest increase in holiday demand last year, followed by clothing, shoes and jewelry.

Electronics, one of the categories that received the biggest holiday season boost in 2020 compared to the rest of the year, actually saw the smallest year-over-year increase in demand.

This suggests that categories that were already extremely linked to online shopping before the pandemic were far less impacted than some categories where shoppers may have preferred to shop in-person during a normal year.

We can see even more evidence of this when we examine our list of holiday search terms:

Some items like USB-C monitors and graphics cards received big year-over-year increases associated with the release of a new generation of hardware. But major appliances like clothes dryers, freezers, and fridges received huge boosts that we can more safely assume were the result of shoppers being more willing to purchase big ticket items online and less willing to brave brick and mortar locations in the midst of a global pandemic.

Naturally, this had us wondering how these trends have looked through 2021, and if we can see signs of a more permanent shift in how people shop online during the holidays.

2021: Even more online shopping than before, or a return to pre-pandemic levels?

While there’s no way to predict this year’s online holiday shopping season, we can certainly examine 2021 so far to see how things are trending as we head into the holiday shopping months.

Let’s start by examining demand at some of our major categories in 2021 so far compared to the same timeframe last year:

Online demand for clothing, shoes, and jewelry has been up big in 2021 so far compared to 2020. Toys and games, home appliances, and electronics have also had a strong 2021, with demand up about 10% for each category.

Two categories that have seen online demand drop in 2021: Video and computer games, and kitchen and dining.

Now, this obviously only paints a part of the picture, so let’s take a month-by-month look at these categories for a clearer view.

Online demand for clothes, shoes, and jewelry dropped significantly early in the pandemic, as people were sheltering in place and far less concerned with a new outfit or set of jewelry. Things rebounded quickly, though, and we’ve seen nothing but continued growth in online demand for this category.

If this trend holds true, we could see holiday 2021 end up being enormous for buying clothes, shoes, and jewelry online.

Here we see just how important the holidays are for toys and games. We also see that in 2020, online demand jumped in the first months of the pandemic, signaling a shift to online shopping for these items in general.

2021 so far has shown online demand for toys and games trending above 2020’s already increased levels, suggesting this year’s holiday season will likely bring all-time highs for this already popular category.

As for electronics, another category practically synonymous with online shopping, the impact of COVID-19 is a little less straightforward.

Here we see that the early months of the pandemic actually had a negative impact on online demand for the category. We can also see the massive impact that Amazon Prime Day has on demand for this category. The spikes you see in July 2019, October 2020, and June 2021 all correspond with the online shopping holiday.

With that in mind, we expect to see demand in 2021 lag behind 2020 during the month of October, but November and December could be another story entirely.

Home appliances’ strong 2021 is due almost entirely to this year’s Prime Day, which made for an enormous year-over-year increase in June. Interestingly, Prime Day didn’t make much of an impact in 2020 or 2019. This could signal a general increase in willingness to make big appliance purchases online in 2021, or maybe there were simply a couple killer Prime Day deals this year.

If the former is true, then this year’s holiday shopping season may bring a big bounce for home appliances for the first time in our analysis.

Video and computer games started 2021 ahead of both 2020 and 2019, but things have slowed significantly over the summer. This is likely the result of fewer major titles being released this past summer as compared to previous years, so it will be interesting to see if some major fall releases will bring a significant rebound for this category going into the holidays.

Online demand for kitching and dining items was up big in all of 2020 compared to 2019, experiencing a big bump early in the pandemic. 2021, meanwhile, saw its trendline mirror 2019’s pre-pandemic line with a strong January and slower spring. August of this year, however, was absolutely massive for kitching and dining supplies.

Last year saw a relatively weak holiday season for this category compared to 2019, when the holidays were the biggest months of that year. So it will be interesting to see if that strong August signals a big holiday season this year or not.

As we’ve written about previously, online demand for camping and hiking gear exploded in 2020 as more and more people turned to more remote summer vacation options as a result of the pandemic.

Demand has remained consistently high this year, and even though it didn’t quite match 2020’s summertime highs, we still might see demand hit an all time high in this category this Christmas.

Finally, let’s take a quick look at the change in search volume for 2021 so far:

The Nvidia GeForce, a massively popular graphics card that released a new model late last year, has seen the largest increase in search volume in 2021 so far. The AMD Radeon, another graphics card, saw the third largest increase in search volume, meanwhile.

Clothes dryers have also had a really strong 2021 so far, with demand up 69% compared to 2020. Fridges, another big ticket appliance, have also had a strong 2021.

To paint a clearer picture of the trend we’re seeing when it comes to buying big ticket appliances online, let’s take a closer look at monthly search volume for clothes dryers:

Prior to COVID-19, we saw search volume for clothes dryers stay relatively consistent throughout the year, only to drop during the holidays as most shoppers likely went to buy these items in-person.

Last year, meanwhile, we saw that trend reverse, with demand climbing slowly and peaking in November.

And in 2021, we’ve seen demand remain consistently higher all year long. So, as we’ve returned to more in-person shopping this year, it will be interesting to see if the holiday season 2021 will look more like 2019 or 2020 when it comes to demand for major appliances.

While we don’t have time to closely examine each of the search terms above, let’s take a quick look at one of the poorer performers in 2021 so far—the instapot:

Here we see the opposite trend as we saw for clothes dryers, with 2019 being a big holiday season for the instapot, and holiday 2020 being much slower.

If anything, this shows that the instapot is simply waning in overall popularity. A theory backed up when we compare it to the latest hit small kitchen appliance, the air fryer:

Here we see consistent year-over-year growth throughout the year for air fryers, although there are some early signs that it might also be slowing somewhat this year.

A lesson for brands

Our data suggests that this year’s holiday shopping season is shaping up to be the most “online” yet.

Understanding the factors that influence consumer behavior can help brands better understand how to forecast demand for their products on online marketplaces, and even inform product design and marketing strategy.

For example, categories and items that were already popular for online purchases like toys and electronics, we expect to see that trend only continue to grow this year.

Other categories appeared to receive a major boost in online demand last year as the result of the pandemic. Shoppers appeared to be far more likely to purchase clothing and jewelry or big ticket items like major appliances online than they had in pre-pandemic years.

Either way, we’ll be keeping a close eye on these trends and more in the coming weeks and months.

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And, if you’d like to learn more about how you can best leverage our data to help your brand win online, holiday or not, schedule a demo today.

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