The holiday season is no longer confined to just November and December. As Amazon and other retailers hold October sales events, enticing consumers to start their holiday shopping early with deep discounts, the traditional holiday season is expanding. 

In addition to deal-seeking, the holiday season is marked by consumers’ omnichannel preferences as they shift between shopping online, on their phones, and in-store. Flexible payment options like buy now, pay later (BNPL) are also playing a larger role in the holiday season as consumers look for alternative ways to pay. 

In this guide, we explore how the holiday season is changing and what retailers need to know about consumer shopping habits. We also recap the 2023 holiday season and give a sneak preview of what 2024’s holiday sales will look like. 

The holiday season is getting longer 

Historically, the holiday season has referred to November and December, the last two months of the year which contain the Cyber Five (i.e., the five-day period between Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday), Christmas, and New Year’s Eve. 

  • The Cyber Five, which includes Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Sunday, and Cyber Monday, made up 15.8% of total US holiday retail ecommerce sales in 2023, per a June 2023 eMarketer forecast.
  • Cyber Monday is usually the biggest online shopping day of the year. In 2023, Cyber Monday sales totaled $13.19 billion, a third of all Cyber Five retail ecommerce sales, per the forecast. 

But in 2022, in addition to its usual event in July, Amazon introduced a second Prime Day event in October. The two-day Prime Early Access Sale prompted many holiday shoppers to start early, lengthening the holiday shopping season. 

These October sales events have begun to serve as an unofficial kickoff to the holiday season, both making it longer and potentially stealing share from the Cyber Five. 

Holiday consumer shopping habits and behaviors

Just like the rest of the year, consumers switch seamlessly between shopping online, on their phone, and in-store at major retailers and department stores, meaning retailers must be sure the customer experience is consistent across all channels. 

  • Over half (55%) of US and UK adults research and buy products online via a retailer’s website, per January 2023 Coveo data. More than a third (37%) will research products on a retailer’s website but wait to buy them in a physical store.
  • US retail mcommerce holiday season sales grew 14.8% to reach $125.84 billion in 2023, nearly half (49.6%) of total holiday retail ecommerce sales, per a June 2023 eMarketer forecast.
  • Despite that, non-ecommerce sales still made up the majority (80.7%) of total holiday retail sales in 2023. 

However, there is some variance in shopping preferences among generations.

ways in which us gen z and millennials vs gen x and baby boomers plan to shop during the holiday season
A chart showing ways in which US Gen Z/millennials versus Gen X/baby boomers plan to shop during the 2023 holiday season.
  • 80% of consumers said they planned to reduce their holiday spending in 2023, according to a survey by Celigo. 
  • Over three-quarters (77%) said they would prioritize value by seeking out cost-effective holiday purchase options, per Celigo.
  • Clear percentage discounts across all products was the most preferred type of deal during November 2023 sales events, cited by 60% of US consumers, per an October 2023 survey by Boston Consulting Group. Other top choices included steep discounts on selected items (58%), deals with free/reduced shipping costs (48%), and bundle deals like buy one get one free (45%).

To help pay for holiday purchases, many consumers turned to BNPL services during the 2023 holiday season.

  • Cyber Monday 2023 was BNPL’s biggest day ever, with holiday shoppers using BNPL to purchase $940 million worth of online orders, according to Adobe Analytics.
  • In total, consumers spent $16.6 billion via BNPL in the months of November and December 2023, per Adobe Digital Insights. 
average expected holiday spending according to us internet users
 A chart showing the average expected holiday spending according to US internet users, 2019 to 2023.

Challenges with post-holiday-season returns

Though returns are a year-round challenge for retailers (eMarketer forecasts total retail return value in the US will grow 2.0% in 2024 to reach $931.85 billion), they can be especially overwhelming following a busy holiday season due to increased sales and, therefore, returns. 

Retailers are experimenting with a variety of strategies to keep return volumes down.

But retailers need to be careful when implementing return policies. If they become too costly or inconvenient, it could hurt the bottom line. 

Holiday shopping season 2023: Spending stats and sales trends

Despite consumers’ continued price sensitivity, US holiday sales rose 4.5% to reach $1.317 trillion in 2023, per eMarketer’s June 2023 forecast. 

As holiday retail sales trends normalized to pre-pandemic levels, ecommerce led sales growth, increasing 11.3% to reach $253.71 billion, per eMarketer. (This is slightly higher than the $222.1 billion in online spend that Adobe Analytics reported, a 4.9% increase YoY.) However, even though non-ecommerce sales grew just 3.0%, they made up over 80% of total US holiday retail sales.

Deep discounts drove consumer spending across the Cyber Five in 2023, resulting in $39.99 billion online sales, per eMarketer’s June 2023 forecast.

  • Cyber Monday brought in $13.19 billion, a third of total Cyber Five retail ecommerce sales and the highest of any single day of the Cyber Five. 
  • Black Friday was second ($10.40 billion), followed by Thanksgiving Day ($5.96 billion), Small Business Saturday ($5.35 billion), and Cyber Sunday ($5.07 billion). 
cyber five retail ecommerce holiday season sales
A chart showing US Cyber Five retail ecommerce holiday sales, by shopping day, 2023.

Amazon emerged the big retail winner of the season as consumers sought out the best deals and fastest shipping times online. 

  • This helped the ecommerce giant score in $106.18 billion in ecommerce sales, the most of any US retailer, per eMarketer’s forecast.
  • Walmart came in a distant second with $20.37 billion in ecommerce sales, followed by Apple ($13.95 billion), Target ($7.48 billion), eBay ($7.36 billion), and Best Buy ($6.29 billion).

Holiday shopping season 2024: Trends and predictions

The 2024 holiday season will be marked by similar behaviors as the year prior. We expect deal-seeking to remain a high priority for consumers who are dealing with inflation, layoffs (though the unemployment rate is 3.7 as of February 2024), declining savings rates, and challenging economic factors affecting consumer confidence. This means that retailers will need to be ready to discount throughout the season. Ecommerce will continue to play a major role, as consumers use it to make quick, easy purchases and aid price comparisons across retailers. Retailers will once again use social and mobile channels to reach consumers wherever they are.