2020 Holiday Sales Wrap-up

Challenged by a pandemic and an unstable economy, online and brick-and-mortar retailers scrambled to salvage the 2020 holiday shopping season. Most merchants started offering discounts much earlier than in previous years to accommodate the changed shopping dynamics.

This is my third consecutive holiday sales wrap-up, following installments for 2018 and 2019.

Research firms defined the 2020 holiday season as the months of November and December (through Christmas Day). Early online discounts diminished the impact of the Cyber 5 — Thanksgiving Day through Cyber Monday — which, according to Adobe Analytics, saw an increase in online sales in the U.S. of 21 percent over 2019. This compares to a 32-percent online increase over 2019 for the entire U.S. 2020 holiday shopping season. Adobe examined more than 1 trillion visits to American-based ecommerce websites.

Almost all of the overall holiday revenue growth was attributable to ecommerce. In-store sales were sluggish and did not increase over 2019. Statista estimated the growth of U.S. retail sales — online and in-store — at 3.6 percent.


According to Adobe Analytics, online U.S. holiday-season revenue exceeded $188.2 billion, a 32-percent year-over-year growth. Every day, including December 24, exceeded $1 billion in revenue. November reached $100 billion in U.S. online sales, the first time a single month has reached that figure. The Cyber 5 days accounted for 18 percent, $34.4 billion, of the entire season, down from 20 percent in 2019.

Mastercard SpendingPulse data showed total U.S. retail sales — in-store and online — rose 2.4 percent between November 1 and Christmas Eve over the same period in 2019. Online sales grew 47.2 percent during that time according to Mastercard, much greater than Adobe’s estimate. The Mastercard report showed ecommerce accounted for 19.7 percent of total retail sales — up from approximately 13.4 percent in 2019.

Data from Salesforce showed an even bigger increase in digital spending — 50 percent — over 2019. Consumers spent $1.1 trillion online worldwide and $236 billion in the United States (much higher than Adobe’s estimates), compared to $723 billion worldwide and $165 billion in the U.S. in 2019, according to Salesforce. Sporting goods and home goods experienced the largest sales increases.

Salesforce also reported that U.S. retailers offering online purchasing and local pickup — in-store and curbside — saw digital revenue grow 49 percent on average year-over-year, while retailers that did not offer these options experienced 28 percent average digital growth. Buy now, pay later usage saw a year-over-year increase of 109 percent as retailers accommodated pandemic-concerned consumers.

Other Data Points

  • Average online order values remained flat year-over-year, according to Adobe.
  • Adobe data showed Christmas Day, typically the biggest mobile shopping day, saw 52 percent of total revenue coming from smartphones — the highest rate ever. In both November and December, 40 percent of revenue was generated from smartphones. Compared to 2019, $23 billion more revenue came from smartphones in 2020.
  • Paid and organic search accounted for 45 percent of both visits and revenue during the 2020 holiday season, according to Adobe; paid search was slightly more effective in generating revenue.
  • Mastercard SpendingPulse determined that home improvement and consumer electronics retailers saw strong growth whereas apparel and jewelry were slower. Home improvement was up a combined 14.1 percent online and in-store, with ecommerce sales up 79.7 percent.
  • According to Mastercard, department stores saw an overall sales decline of 10.2 percent but their online sales grew by 3.3 percent.
  • Other Mastercard findings included: (i) Affiliate and partner referrals resulted in six percent of online traffic and 14 percent of revenue; (ii) Free shipping was slightly less prevalent this year due to its increased cost; and (iii) As in past years, social networks did not generate much revenue — less than 5 percent of spending and 10 percent of visits.


The increase in online purchasing will likely create a huge uptick in returns. UPS expects holiday returns this January to exceed last year’s level by 23 percent. UPS expects about one-third of all holiday purchases will go back to merchants.

Narvar, which manages online returns for hundreds of brands, predicts that consumers are likely to return twice as many items as they did during the 2019 holiday period. Many large retailers have extended the return period to the end of January.

It costs retailers much in labor and resources to receive, warehouse, process, repackage, and restock items that consumers return. This year Amazon, Walmart, and Target decided in January to let some gift recipients keep the items they don’t want even though they still get a refund.

Initially, Walmart offered a free pickup service — Carrier Pickup by FedEx — for items purchased and shipped by The expense of that option most likely caused the company to reconsider. Amazon is encouraging its marketplace sellers to implement the “returnless refund” policy as well, which could have a devastating effect on small merchants.

Marcia Kaplan
Marcia Kaplan
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