Here’s How Holiday Shopping Will Look Different This Year

In this most unusual year, the gift of giving will feel especially good. These tips can help make the season merry and bright for everyone.

Every editorial product is independently selected, though we may be compensated or receive an affiliate commission if you buy something through our links.

holiday gifs wrapped: bike, bagel, wine bottle, hoodie, hand weights, sneakersTed + Chelsea Cavanaugh for Reader's Digest
WISH LIST This season, hot ticket items don’t have to come with high price tags.

From what’s under the tree to how it got there, many of our holiday shopping traditions look very different this year. A survey of American shoppers by the consulting firm ­McKinsey & Company found that more than 75 percent of us have altered our shopping habits in 2020—embracing new brands, stores, or ways to save—and most intend to keep them up. Celebrating this season will clearly require unwrapping new strategies. Here are the best we’ve found. Here’s how the holidays will look different this year.

What’s different this year

Hot Ticket Items May Be Extra Hot

Some companies have scaled back their holiday ordering this year to trim inventory, so popular products might sell out fast—in stores and online. So if you see a good price for an item on your list, be sure to grab it. And plan to ship gifts at least two weeks before Christmas Eve. If you wait a little too long, here are some last-minute gifts with free overnight shipping.

Online Sales Will Start Early

Black Friday in stores has been overtaken in recent years by more and more deals appearing online, not just on Cyber Monday but during all of what’s now known as Cyber Week. This year, it may be more like Cyber Season, with online promotions and sales starting right after Halloween. With concerns about crowds, retailers will likely save a lot of their inventory for online sales.

More Stores Offer Curbside Pickup

Malls are open, though they may be limiting capacity (as are some individual stores inside). If you’d rather keep your distance from other shoppers but you still want to pick up items locally, order ahead and pick up curbside. Many stores offer this option when you buy online, or you can call in an order and ask whether an employee will run your purchase outside to you. To avoid parking lot chaos, try to pick up your purchases first thing in the morning or later in the evening, when wait times should be shorter.

text: Look for rock-bottom prices as some stores liquidate.

Outlets Are Online Too

If one of your holiday shopping traditions is a trip to the outlets, you can still experience the thrill of the bargain hunt—from home. ­Shoppremiumoutlets.com is the virtual version of the country’s largest outlet company. In some ways, it’s even better than an in-person trip because you can shop by item or category and immediately see what different retailers have in stock, rather than going store to store (even if, for some of us, that’s part of the fun). For example, search women’s handbags and see offerings from Kate Spade, Michael Kors, Burberry, and more all in one window to easily compare, choose, and buy. Here are some amazing best friend gifts for every type of friend.

A Few Old Favorites May Not Be Around Much Longer

Among the retail stalwarts that filed for bankruptcy this year: JCPenney, J. Crew, Gordmans, Lord & Taylor, New York and Company, and Tuesday Morning. One upside for shoppers is rock-bottom prices as some stores liquidate. The downsides: They might not be around if you need to return something or use a gift card. In other words: Bankruptcy buyers beware.

Customer Service Really Counts

It’s a fact of life: Sometimes gifts go back. Do your giftees a favor and buy from retailers with generous return policies, such as Nordstrom, which doesn’t impose a time limit for returns; Home Depot and Kohl’s, where customers have six months to return items; or fanatics.com and REI, which allow returns for a year. (Most policies have exceptions, so read those closely.) During the holidays, retailers often extend their usual time limits for returns. Stumped for a gift idea? Zappos.com, the shoe giant known for its above-and-beyond customer service (which includes a 365-day return policy), has an “Ask Us Anything” line with representatives who are ready—and ­encouraged—to talk to callers about anything, whether they have a question about an order or just want to chat. Now, that’s a nice holiday present!

wrapped hand weights set on blue background with gift tag that reads, Ted + Chelsea Cavanaugh for Reader's Digest
DON’T SWEAT IT Weights have been in short supply, but you might find them in unexpected places.

When to shop

Not on Thanksgiving …

Many stores that opened their doors on the holiday last year—­including Best Buy, Target, and Walmart—have announced that they will be closed this year. Make sure you know about these other stores that are closed on Thanksgiving this year.

… Or on Black Friday

Not in stores, anyway. Home Depot announced in early September that it was canceling its in-store Black Friday promotions and instead planned to offer deals all through November and December, in stores and online, with exclusive offerings on its app. Other retailers have similar plans to avoid the in-person crush, so watch their websites or download their apps and allow push notifications so that you will receive alerts for “flash” sales, when hot items are offered at a discount for a limited time. The best way to see all the sale schedules in one place is to visit blackfriday.com and ­theblackfriday.com.

Small Business Saturday

Held the Saturday after Thanksgiving (November 28 this year), this “shopping holiday” is a good reminder to support your local merchants, who need you more than ever this holiday season. By some estimates, one in every three small businesses is in danger of going under because of the pandemic.

text: Books are always popular gifts, and many Americans are reading more.

Whenever Stores Restock

If you find that something you want is sold out, nowinstock.net will let you know whether another retailer has it. For Amazon goods, so will ­camelcamelcamel.com; it will even ping you if the price drops. You can also ask a local merchant to order something specific for you and call you when it comes in—but you may also want to check in with the store every week or so, given how busy it may be this time of year.

At the Last Minute

Forgot something—or somebody—important? Don’t panic! This is when same-day delivery can save you. If you’re in one of the 260-plus markets served by shipt.com, the personal-shopping service ($99 per year or $9.99 per order), you can order items from Target, Costco, CVS, Petco, or your local supermarket for same-day delivery. Walmart+ ($98/year) promises same-day delivery service in some regions, but it’s not available in many smaller towns. Amazon offers same-day delivery, too, but it’s also limited to certain cities. Other retailers that offer same-day delivery in certain areas include Ace Hardware, Barnes & Noble, and Best Buy; most require a minimum purchase and may charge a fee. For shoppers in smaller towns, don’t forget that some local businesses—and not just ­supermarkets—will bring your orders right to your door. These are the coolest tech gifts of the year that you’ll want to keep for yourself.

What gifts to buy & where to find them

Comfy Clothes

In a world where we now have “work sweatpants” and “Zoom sweaters” and maybe even an entire wardrobe of slippers, comfort is king. In April, when clothing sales fell 79 percent overall, sales of sweatpants shot up 80 percent. If you want to help upgrade someone’s “work­leisure” wardrobe, consider Uniqlo’s basic sweatpants, at $20 ($29.90 for men) voted best bargain for women by Real Simple staffers, who wore and washed 45 different brands. From outdoorsy Lands’ End, you can buy fleece for every­body and have it monogrammed for an ­extra $8 per item. Fanatics.com has a huge selection of school and sports-team sweatshirts starting at $30. For a splurge gift with a bargain price tag, shop ­lululemon.com’s “We Made Too Much” sale section, where you’ll find markdowns on its famous women’s leggings and lots more—for men too.

wrapped video game controller on blue background with gift tag that reads, Ted + Chelsea Cavanaugh for Reader's Digest
TAKE CONTROL Watch sale schedules to save on electronics.

Books

They’re always popular gifts, and many Americans say they are reading more, according to a survey from market research firm Statista. Amazon’s “Find a Gift” section makes shopping there even easier, but in­dependent booksellers are working hard to keep up, offering curbside pickup and sometimes even free shipping, and they’re known for offering booklovers personalized, thoughtful recommendations. Find a store near you at ­indiebound.org.

Bicycles

Bikes were one of the hottest items of the past year, thanks in part to closed gyms and iffy public trans­portation around the country. In fact, for months, mass retailers and specialty shops were sold out of all but the priciest specialty rides, so if a two-wheeler (or a three-wheeler!) tops the wish list of someone special in your life, start shopping soon, before supplies dwindle again. If you’re not particularly handy, look to buy from a locally owned shop, where you can get a bike that’s already assembled rather than a box full of parts. Be aware of these shortages we’re most likely to see this winter due to COVID-19.

Workout Gear

Also in short supply this year: hand weights, kettlebells, and other popular workout items. They may still be hard to find or crazy expensive, so consider giving other health helpers such as exer­cise bands, jump ropes, or yoga and stretching mats or shopping at less-obvious suppliers, such as ­overstock.com, T.J. Maxx, supermarkets, or even Home Depot, where we found mats in a variety of bright colors.

text: A handmade gift is always appreciated—even if you aren’t handy.

American Wines

Many European wines got more expensive last year because of a new 25 percent tariff. If you have a wine lover on your list, it’s a good time to buy American. Look for noted regional varietals such as California chardonnays, Colorado Rieslings, and Oregon pinot noirs, as well as wines from vineyards in your area. According to the experts at Wine Enthusiast, many bottles from 2010, 2011, and 2012 are at their peak for drinking. You can find plenty of good choices for less than $25, and you don’t necessarily have to go to a wine store to find them. Some Aldi, Costco, and Trader Joe’s stores have solid selections—even according to wine snobs! Buy a case (12 bottles) and you can usually save an extra 10 percent. And don’t snub bottles with screw caps; these days, plenty of fine wines come without a cork.

Crafty Items

A handmade gift is always ­appreciated—even if you aren’t handy enough to make it yourself. Etsy.com offers its own holiday guides to get you started. Other sources for jewelry, decor, clothing, and more made by artisans around the world are ­thelittlemarket.com, worldmarket.com, and tenthousandvillages.com­.

Games and Gadgets

Hunting down the hottest holiday gifts, such as the Sony PlayStation 5 or the Xbox Series X, often feels like a game in itself. Pay attention to release dates and sale schedules. Another way to save: Check retailers’ online outlet sections, where you can find good deals on open-box items (products that have been returned) and refurbs (pre-owned items, which are certified by the sellers and often come with a warranty). Check out ­apple.com/shop/refurbished, amazon.com/outlet, and bestbuy.com/outlet. You’ll save even more if you have an old device to trade in. For example, in the fall, Samsung was offering as much as $400 for certain used Galaxy phones—money you can put toward a new purchase. Apple doesn’t generally have sales, but last year you could score a gift card or free wireless earbuds with certain purchases, so watch for bonus deals this year too. These are the most popular holiday gifts ordered on Amazon.

wrapped wine bottle on blue background with gift tag that reads, Ted + Chelsea Cavanaugh for Reader's Digest
UNCORK SAVINGS Tariffs have driven up the prices of imports, so this year try domestic.

Sneakers

When big-name athletes’ signature shoes come out, they usually fly off the shelves, making them popular gift items for “sneakerheads.” If you’re looking for a specific new release, such as the retro Air Jordans due out this holiday season, make sure you don’t miss out. Use the shoe release calendar at Dick’s Sporting Goods or sign up for notifications on shoe companies’ websites. Look for refurbished classics at Nike’s resku.co. Or if you’re all about price, see what styles are on sale at sneakadeal.com.

At-Home Events

While concerts, comedy clubs, and other in-person shows are now no‑gos, you can still spectate at home. The Moth, the source of many RD stories, offers tickets to its storytelling performances for $10 per household. Online cooking classes from the experts at Sur La Table run $29 per household. A subscription to watch stage performances at broadwayhd.com is $100 a year—less than the price for a single seat in a theater. And at ­eventbrite.com, you’ll find listings for all sorts of lectures and shows.

And don’t forget the popcorn! The top recommended poppers at ­toptenreviews.com include the countertop West Bend 82505 Stir Crazy Popcorn Popper and the stovetop Great Northern Popcorn Original Popcorn Popper.

Treats

Speaking of snacks, with traveling on hold for many of us, why not send a care package of regional delicacies—Kansas City ribs, New York bagels, Alaska king salmon—to folks on your gift list? Goldbelly.com, a clearinghouse for dishes from around the country, arranges for shipping directly to the lucky recipient’s door. Plan ahead, because holiday delivery dates might be limited. You can also call a favorite restaurant near your relatives to have a meal delivered to them, or use a food-­ordering app such as Seamless or Uber Eats. It’s nice to give the family kitchen crew a night off!

wrapped sneakers on blue background with gift tag that reads, Ted + Chelsea Cavanaugh for Reader's Digest
KICKS MAKE GOOD GIFTS Grab sneakers on release day or risk missing out.

Master Classes

It’s always a good time to learn something new. You can gift a virtual seat in a class with a top professional in a variety of fields, such as ballet with prima ballerina Misty Copeland, fiction writing with children’s novelist R. L. Stine, or scientific thinking with Neil deGrasse Tyson. Find them and other pros at masterclass.com, which charges $180 per series.

Gifts That Keep on Giving …

Some companies make donations after you order. For example, for every pair of socks you buy at ­bombas.com, a pair goes to a homeless shelter. Buy a comforter at thecompanystore.com and a comforter goes to a child in need. Any purchase (of jewelry, pottery, etc.) from uncommongoods.com sends $1 to a charity partner of your choice. Or do your Amazon shopping through smile.amazon.com, and a portion of the money you spend will go to your chosen cause. Another great source for unique gifts that give back: museum stores, where your purchases help keep visitor-­starved museums afloat. A few good ones to try: the Smithsonian Institution, the National Gallery of Art, and Chicago’s Field Museum. These are some other gifts that give back.

… And Keep Coming

As we’re all craving fresh stimulation, this might be the year to spring for a gift that shows up every month or so. You can find subscription boxes filled with food, toys, pet products, makeup, clothing, and more. Some let the recipient hand-select items, while others are full of surprises. Browse at mysubscriptionaddiction.com. Our sister publication Taste of Home has a nifty box filled with curated kitchen goodies and recipes; learn more here.

Nostalgia

Of course, you’ll make new memories this year, but the old ones are worth celebrating too. You can get your home movies digitized and saved on a thumb drive or DVD or in a Cloud file at legacybox.com ($60 and up) so you can watch them without hauling out the projector or share them with the rest of the family. Have a wardrobe of beloved T-shirts made into a memory quilt at projectrepat.com ($75 and up). Or turn your smiling faces into a photo book, calendar, set of note cards, or other photo-memory gift at ­shutterfly.com, artifactuprising.com­, or one of the many photo gift sites (options and prices vary). Watch for special discounts for first-time shoppers, and check groupon.com and livingsocial.com for discount offers. Certainly, however you celebrate, this will be a holiday season to remember! Now, check out these Amazon Prime gifts for everyone on your list.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Jody L. Rohlena
Jody L. Rohlena is a senior editor at Reader's Digest.