Pour the Gluhwein, it’s time for some shopping: ecommerce trends for the holiday season

Illustrated graphic of two screens with ecommerce websites loaded on them, surrounded by presents, depicting holiday ecommerce trends
December 10, 2021


Well, it’s that time of year. The sleigh bells are jingling and the cash registers are ringing as holiday shopping kicks into high gear. Here at Contentful we’ve just wrapped up our first ecommerce trends survey and — wait for it — the results show online shopping is here to stay.

Beyond that pithy statement of the obvious, however, the survey points to deeper insights into consumer behaviors with important implications for every retailer, digital native or not.

We’ve entered the meta shopping era

No, this isn’t a reference to Facebook. But it is an observation of just how thoroughly online shopping has permeated our lives. On one hand, this means shopping when we’re not really shopping. Over 90% of our survey respondents said they occasionally shop online while doing other things — and not just watching TV or preparing a meal. They’re also talking with others, attending class, in a meeting, or in the car, hopefully not while driving. Let’s not even mention how many people admit to shopping from the toilet. (It brings new meaning — and gives pause — to the idea of “meeting customers where they are.”)

On the other hand, we’re also shopping online while we’re already shopping, blending in-store and mobile. Over a third of respondents said they’ve purchased an item through a store’s app or website while they were in a physical store. That’s in addition to the vast majority of online shoppers who browse in the store and buy online or vice-versa. 

Illustrated icon of a person shopping through mobile ecommerce

Any clear line that used to exist between online and offline shopping — or even being in “shopping mode” or not — is gone. Treating online shopping as distinct or separate no longer works as an effective business strategy. 

Compare the recent performance of global athletic brand Nike with British retailer Debenhams. Nike began a company-wide digital transformation in 2016, reducing the number of wholesale relationships and shifting investment to build D2C ecommerce channels and rebuilding its own stores. This approach centered on creating an integrated, holistic experience for customers. In 2016, over 80% of Nike’s revenue came through wholesale. Today, direct and ecommerce sales drive over one-third of total revenue. The company was well positioned for the massive shift toward digital during the pandemic. Financial year 2021 revenues were up 19% to nearly $45 billion while gross margins grew to 45.8%. 

Meanwhile, Debenhams, a venerable high street fixture, was hit hard by pandemic-driven shutdowns. The company had already been grappling with changing buyer behavior and poor financial performance. Lockdowns proved the final straw. The company’s digital capabilities were so strained that even attempts to liquidate remaining stock were hampered by an ecommerce site that couldn’t handle the traffic.

Case Study | How Bang & Olufsen is making ecommerce gains with Contentful

These examples highlight just how pervasive online shopping has become. We’re no longer worried about whether we should provide our credit card details on an ecommerce website. Instead, we as consumers are more concerned about finding the right products and gratifying experiences. And yet we’re still a long way from a reality where shopping is so ubiquitous that we don’t even think about how or where it happens. The entire basis for our assumptions about how retail works has changed, yet it’s happening in such subtle ways that most of the time we don’t even notice. 

Illustrated icon of a shopping basket

The future of ecommerce: What shoppers really want

Consistent customer experience is key

Precisely because these boundaries have blurred, customers have little patience for inconsistency. They told us in no uncertain terms. Eighty percent of those we surveyed say a consistent look, feel and experience from brands is important — regardless of how they’re accessed. We’ve already noted the huge crossover between in-store and online shopping. Within online channels alone, 40% of shoppers use multiple devices to complete a single purchase from browsing to buying. 

One of the biggest reasons consumers abandon an online purchase is insufficient or inconsistent product information. Even an inconsistent overall experience can leave customers confused or frustrated. The more customers channel skip, the greater — and more important — the challenge of consistency becomes. In the category of “True Confessions of Real-Life Professionals,” one of our colleagues recently owned up to the difficulties faced at a previous employer. Customers complained that what were supposedly the same products looked different on the website and in the app. Little wonder: they were drawing from completely different content systems. 

Providing that consistency, whether in product information or overall experience, requires explicit management. Hoping it happens by accident isn’t good enough.

Illustrated icon of a phone and pc

Engaging content equals personalized products

Be relevant, not creepy. Engaging content keeps communications on the right side of the line. Tailored product recommendations, which customers choose to act on or not, make shopping fun and interesting. Nearly two-thirds of our survey respondents said a branded piece of content (e.g., an ad, article, or video) has helped them decide on a gift at least occasionally. Half have made purchases directly from ads, curated suggestions, or sponsored social media posts. Seventy-two percent bought something that was promoted in their social media feed, 45% within the last month.

Here at Contentful central, that rings true. Both of your humble authors were recently swayed by ads for the new Bombas slippers. The GenXer bought on the website after seeing an email and online ads, the Millennial bought from Instagram. Each of us was drawn to the promise of warm feet and the vision of cozying up with family on dark winter nights and weekend mornings. Personal, relevant — and since we’re existing customers, very likely to succeed. (For the record, although Bombas runs on Contentful, we were both Bombas customers before becoming Contentfuler@s. Any shameless plugs are the result of great products and equally good customer experiences.) 

Watch | Product demo: How to connect and personalize ecommerce experiences

Illustrated icon of a shopping bag

Nobody likes being sold to, but most of us quite like buying things

As we move closer toward ecommerce shopping becoming both ubiquitous and less intrusive parts of our daily lives, successful retailers recognize that tapping into the fun of shopping — while avoiding the pain of the hard sell and the frustration of shopping as a chore — holds the winning formula. Consumers certainly know what good looks like. The same percentage of our survey respondents (just under two-thirds) have abandoned an online purchase because of a poor experience as those who consider holiday shopping fun. There is a large and receptive audience eager for opportunities to enjoy buying. 

Even consumers who rarely or never shopped online point to the top four factors that would entice them to do so:

  1. Lower prices available online

  2. Easy-to-use ecommerce website or app

  3. Merchandise available exclusively online

  4. An engaging online shopping experience that makes it feel fun or interesting

More of the fun, please. Preferably fun that blends effortlessly into what we’re already doing with our time and aligns with our priorities. 

Read more | Headless commerce: how microservices architecture unites content and ecommerce

Illustrated icon of content iterating on a digital device

Iteration defines the journey

As businesses, the way to reach this goal — and let’s be clear, it’s lofty but achievable — is through experimentation. That means understanding customers and testing that understanding,  then determining what content and channels are most effective with which audiences and in what context. It requires iteration and testing, starting with straightforward hypotheses and core capabilities, but increasing in sophistication over time. 

Building this capability requires both the mindset and the tools to make it happen. This doesn’t mean having all the answers (no one does, it’s all about the right questions) or all of the capabilities (an ever-moving target) from the outset. This is, after all, a question of engaging customers. Getting it right depends on having a passion for serving customers, the curiosity to seek out new answers to perennial questions, and the flexibility to try different things — all in a way that still feels consistent and appropriate. Lucky for all of us, the tools are finally catching up to the ambition. Now to use them to their full potential.

Happy shopping.

Learn why the world’s biggest brands rely on Contentful to keep customers satisfied daily. Watch our recent webinar Black Friday at scale: Conquering the ultimate traffic peak with Contentful. 

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