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Holiday Shopping 2021: What to Buy and When to Buy It

Expect fewer discounts and more shortages heading into Black Friday and Cyber Monday

spinner image woman shopper touches the buy button on a virtual screen full of gift products, and sales signs
iStock / Getty Images


How to Avoid Holiday Scams

The best times to snag many of the biggest holiday shopping deals for 2021 will be during Cyber Week, the period that stretches from Thanksgiving (Nov. 25) through Cyber Monday (Nov. 29) and includes Black Friday (Nov. 26). Just don't expect the discounts to be as big as last year's, predicts Adobe, and don't be surprised if some must-have items on your list are impossible to buy at any price.

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Americans are expected to spend $207 billion online on holiday gifts from Nov. 1 to Dec. 31, a 10 percent increase over 2020, according to Adobe, which bases its forecasts on an analysis of over 1 trillion visits to U.S. retailer websites. But discounts won't be as generous this year, running between 5 percent and 25 percent compared to the historical holiday average of between 10 percent and 30 percent. Combined with rising prices and shortages resulting from global supply-chain issues, shoppers should expect to pay about 9 percent more, on average, during Cyber Week this year versus last year.

Popular holidays gifts for 2021

  • AirPods Max
  • Smart mugs
  • Instant Pots
  • Air fryers
  • Smart water bottles
  • Drones
  • Record players

Source: Adobe

It’s going to be an unusual holiday shopping season, says Vivek Pandya, lead analyst at Adobe Digital Insights. Shoppers hunting for a specific item they can't live without may want to shop well before Cyber Week — and perhaps even consider paying full price for it — or risk finding later that the item is sold out or won't ship in time for the holidays. Already, the long arm of the pandemic is affecting holiday shoppers. Online out-of-stock messages have increased 172 percent going into the holiday season compared to pre-pandemic levels, Adobe says.

Nevertheless, “If you don’t really care what it is and you really want the bigger discount, wait until Cyber Week,” Pandya says.

When to buy

Despite the pandemic, retailers are going to be dropping some bargain bombs this season — just not as big as the ones they dropped last year, Adobe says. Computers should see average discounts of 25 percent this year, compared with 30 percent last year. Other electronics should see discounts of 22 percent, down from 27 percent in 2020. And appliances should average a 16 percent discount — pretty good, but below last year’s 20 percent markdowns.

Other categories, such as furniture (7 percent), tools (8 percent) and sporting goods (14 percent), won’t carry mouth-watering discounts but will still be marked down somewhat, according to Adobe data. But if you can find items you like, a 7 percent discount is better than none.

Top toys for kids on your shopping list

  • Tamagotchi Pix
  • Pop Fidget
  • Got2Glow Fairy Finder
  • Baby Yoda
  • Gabby’s Dollhouse

Source: Adobe

You’ll still see the deepest discounts around Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday, according to Adobe. Toys should see their biggest discounts on Thanksgiving, while furniture and bedding, tools and home improvement items will be best to buy the following day, which is Black Friday. Looking for a television? Try Cyber Monday. A computer? Hold off until December, Adobe says. Other purchases can also wait until after Cyber Week. "If you're looking for more general things like stocking stuffers, candles and things like that, I think you're fine to wait until December," says smart shopping expert Trae Bodge.

But keep your eye out before the big Cyber Week shopping season, too. Some big stores, such as Walmart and Best Buy, are offering big sales before Cyber Week to offer customers high-demand items that might not be available after Thanksgiving.

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What's hot for 2021

If you're shopping for your young children, grandchildren or other youngsters in your life, Adobe says the most sought-out toys this year are expected to be the Tamagotchi Pix, Pop Fidget, Got2Glow Fairy Finder, Baby Yoda and Gabby’s Dollhouse.

Got older kids and gamers on your shopping list? The top gaming devices include the Nintendo Switch OLED, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series S/X and Stream Deck. The biggest game titles are expected to be Metroid Dread, Battlefield 2042, Pokemon Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl, Halo Infinite and FIFA 22.

Other gifts on many wish lists include AirPods Max, smart mugs, Instant Pots, air fryers, smart water bottles, drones and record players.

Shopping strategies

Try these tips to find the holiday gift you want at the price you want to pay.

  • Shop online at retailers offering in-store or curbside pickup, so you'll know if they have the item and you can get it. You’ll avoid nail-biting shipping delays, or worse, a notice that the item is no longer available because of supply chain problems. “If you can pick it up in the store, it’s going to put your mind at ease,” Pandya says.
  • Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales are starting earlier and earlier. Walmart and Best Buy aren’t the only stores rushing the season. Target, Costco, Lowe’s, Home Depot, Macy’s and Amazon are also offering specials before Black Friday. Check early and often.
  • Don't forget discount apps like Rakuten, Honey or Flipp, says Bodge. "My main advice to consumers would be to find the thing that you're looking for, but then take a moment see if you could save even more on that item," she says. 

John Waggoner covers all things financial for AARP, from budgeting and taxes to retirement planning and Social Security. Previously he was a reporter for Kiplinger's Personal Finance and  USA Today and has written books on investing and the 2008 financial crisis. Waggoner's  USA Today investing column ran in dozens of newspapers for 25 years.

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