Best holiday sales in years driven by plucky consumers — in-store and online


Confounding dour predictions of soggy holiday sales — and defying COVID headwinds — America’s resilient shoppers drove the November-December holiday period to a record-breaking $768 billion in sales, a remarkable 8.6% leap from last year’s $707 billion. 

The 8.6% increase was the highest this century, easily topping 2004’s 6.6% increase, based on the latest data from the DOC/Census Bureau. After the usual early December lull, procrastinating shoppers slipped the surly bonds of COVID long enough to crowd into outdoor venues, online—and even many enclosed malls.  

The entire week before Christmas—and then the 26th (Boxing Day)—saw record sales and transaction volumes, helping boost year-over-year sales well beyond our $749 billion pre-season forecast from 

Considering the COVID environment and the economic uncertainty, this year’s extraordinary increase in holiday sales was truly remarkable, and it is a testament to the optimism and resilience of everyday Americans, since the sales gains were seen throughout the country. Certainly, households without jobs struggled, but our field team saw solid momentum across the income spectrum, and both at deep-value and luxury venues. 

Digital again drove the majority of the $61 billion year-over-year increase, but big-box stores (e.g. Costco, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Home Depot, Target) saw soft footfall growth converted into robust net traffic growth. Average tickets rose as shoppers consolidated trips, while many retailers increased their online sales by 40%-80%.  

Home and hardlines categories — notably electronics, home improvement, sporting goods, etc. — all thrived, as consumer spending continued to rotate from apparel towards the home and work-from-home lifestyles. 

The key question is how far holiday’s stellar growth will shine deeper into in the new year, with the remarkably sound household fundamentals facing off against COVID and employment growth fears.  

If employment growth lags, retail sales growth may ease to about 3.5%. But if employment accelerates, we may well see solid 4.5% to 5% year-over-year well into 2022.

Craig Johnson is president of retail research and consulting firm Customer Growth Partners, which has conducted proprietary and public forecasts of annual, back-to-school and holiday retail sales since 2001. 

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