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How to navigate the 2021 holiday shopping season

All you need to know about buying gifts this holiday season, including how your credit cards can help you save

Summary

This holiday shopping season, consumers are starting early, spending more and shopping online as well as in stores. Here’s how to navigate holiday shopping in the second COVID winter.

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If you’re like most people, you’re still doing the bulk of your holiday shopping online this year – but venturing into stores for certain things, more than you might have last year.

You also may be planning to spend more. After pandemic-related layoffs in 2020, a hiring boom followed. Required to stay at home more, many were able to pay off debt and save on travel, dining and gym memberships.

The result? Many Americans are planning to splurge this holiday season.

A survey by the National Retail Federation indicates 2021 holiday sales will be 8.5% and 10.5% higher than 2020’s growth. A survey by Tinuiti predicts six in 10 will spend more than $250.

And most will do their shopping online, especially by mobile device. A September poll by CreditCards.com also predicts a strong holiday shopping season, with 62% of consumers planning to do most of their holiday shopping online this year.

Here’s what to expect and how to use your credit cards to holiday-shop during the pandemic.

Shop with caution

Last year, the Centers for Disease Control told us to stay home and avoid holiday travel and gatherings. This year, CDC’s advice is to proceed with caution and avoid crowded, unventilated spaces if you can – even if you’re fully vaccinated, but especially if you’re not – and wear a mask if you can’t avoid crowds, including in stores.

According to a Deloitte survey, about 42% of us will be traveling for the holidays. People staying home will probably be shipping gifts again, less than last year but more than usual. But prepare for possible shipping delays, due partly to supply chain issues.

Start shopping early

One way to avoid shipping delays is to start early. According to our poll, more than half of respondents (51%) planned to start shopping before Halloween. Given supply chain issues, that’s a smart move. Inventory may not be able to keep up with demand, meaning certain items may not be available if you wait until the last minute.

Assuming items remain in stock, you can still get many gifts delivered on time even if you wait. Led by Amazon Prime’s two-day guarantee of free shipping, other big chains like Walmart, Target and Home Depot now offer fast, free shipping.

To compete, local retailers and eateries have upped their game when it comes to curbside pickup. Check their websites and social media for details.

Trade travel for home rewards

Since we were grounded last year, card issuers made travel credit cards more attractive for homebound spending. This year, travel rewards are focusing on travel again, but issuers are making both rewards and redemptions more flexible. Those of us still focused on home, as well as looking to travel again, will find plenty of enticing rewards and promotions these days.

A McKinsey survey shows a third of respondents are indeed still focused on home improvement, renovating and setting up home offices and gyms.

If you’re spending more time in the kitchen and in front of the TV, you may be looking for a card that rewards both. One option is the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express that offers 6% cash back on spending at U.S. supermarkets and streaming services, on up to $6,000 in purchases per year (then it’s 1%), for a $95 annual fee ($0 introductory annual fee for the first year).

Shop wellness

If you’ve saved on travel and gym memberships during the pandemic, you might consider spending some of that savings on in-home fitness. You may even be able to use travel rewards.

When it became clear last year that Chase’s popular Sapphire cards were not providing much travel value for their annual fees – $95 for Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and $550 for the Chase Sapphire Reserve card – the bank partnered with Peloton, the exercise equipment and fitness platform that’s taking the place of gym memberships for many.

“We’ve heard from our cardmembers that personal wellness and connecting with others through new experiences are core to their lifestyle – even more so during this past year,” said Marleta Ross, general manager of Chase Sapphire.

If you have the Sapphire Preferred Card, you can still earn up to $60 in statement credit for Peloton memberships – Sapphire Reserve cardholders get up to $120 – through Dec. 31, 2021.

“We have thousands of classes across more than 10 fitness disciplines, taught by world-class instructors,” said Karina Kogan, Peloton vice president.

Shop local

Many shoppers are investing holiday dollars in local shops, spas and eateries they’d be sad to find shuttered when the pandemic ends.

Amex discontinued the 2X Membership Rewards points at select small businesses, but you can still find local merchants on its Shop Small Map.

Main Street districts are offering events with discounts to encourage shopping and enjoy socially distanced Yuletide. Many have group pages on Facebook where you can sign up for alerts.

Shop your principles

People are more likely to support brands that back their values now, according to surveys. Many shoppers have supported eco-friendly sourcing and women-owned businesses, for example.

In 2020, a Tinuiti survey found 21% of shoppers – and 28% of Gen Z – were seeking out Black-owned businesses and brands. One way to find these is via hashtags such as #shopblackowned on Instagram. Another is to Google whatever you’re looking to support.

“As the world recovers from the pandemic, we recognize that Black-owned businesses have been disproportionately affected,” said Walter Frye, vice president of global brand engagement at American Express.

Shop value and outdoor fun

The McKinsey survey shows U.S. consumers continue to trade loyalty to brands and stores for value and convenience, with 75% of consumers (and 90% of millennials and higher-income shoppers) continuing to switch brands. Consumers are three times more likely to choose lower-cost brands or retailers when buying standard products this year.

Gift cards can help with that. Watch for rewards to continue shifting as we replace plane travel with day trips and home-based pursuits. Popular gifts this year are likely to involve cooking, gadgets and outdoor gear.

Take advantage of Amazon

Nobody wants to see Amazon take over the world, but it makes it hard to resist. If you order something via Amazon Prime, either for yourself or delivered to someone else, nine times out of 10 it arrives in record time, as promised. Surveys show Amazon and big-box stores will continue to rule.

If you’re a Prime member, the Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature card* is a no-brainer. Cardholders get 5% cash back on Amazon.com and Whole Foods purchases year-round. Once you’re approved, the card becomes your default payment method on Amazon and points can be applied as a gift card discount at checkout.

The Discover it® Cash Back card also offers 5% on Amazon in Q4 2021, along with Walmart.com, Target.com and Best Buy. You must activate the offer to get 5% back in the bonus categories, and you can earn up to $1,500 in combined purchases during the quarter (then it’s 1%).

On Amazon’s Shop with Points page, you can click on several reward programs, including Capital One, Citi ThankYou, Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, Discover and Hilton Honors. All allow you to link your rewards account directly to your Amazon account and use points like cash.

Be warned: If you’re strapped for cash and have a ton of reward points on any of these programs, they may be worth cashing in. But the only ones that are going to give you a good return here are cash back deals like Discover where you’re paying with dollars you’d get as statement credits.

Chase Ultimate Rewards points, for example, are worth 0.8 cents on Amazon – well below the 2 cents per point they’re potentially worth. It takes 500 Hilton points to equal a dollar on Amazon.

Just as frequent flyer miles work best on the airline itself, hotel points are designed to be used on the hotel’s properties. On anything else, including car rentals, Hilton points are worth 0.2 points compared to the 0.6 to 0.75 cents you’ll get on their hotels.

You might find it’s worth shaving the price of a product down with whatever you have in your wallet. Just know what you’re getting in the trade.

Donate points

Most reward programs offer ways to donate points to charity. Your frequent flyer miles, for example, can be used to fly medical staff and supplies at a time they’re desperately needed.

Many issuers have made it easy to donate. If you have an Amex card with Membership Rewards, for example, you can donate to one of more than 1.5 million charities via JustGiving.

Donate your cash back bonus for Discover to one of 10 charities benefiting cancer, animals or children, your choice, and Discover will contribute an extra $25,000 to the organization that receives the most cash back bonus donations this year.

Avoid scams

The Tinuiti survey shows 80% of people under age 40, and 66% older than 40, will use their phones to buy gifts. With so many doing the bulk of their holiday shopping online, scammers are out en masse, especially on social media. Beware ads on Facebook Marketplace or Instagram that link to sites mimicking familiar ones. Always check the URL before you proceed.

“To guard against fraud, we encourage consumers to regularly review and monitor their transaction history,” says Jennifer Delgado, spokesperson for Discover, which offers free fraud alerts to cardmembers.

If in doubt about the legitimacy of a seller, search for it on the Better Business Bureau Scam Tracker before entering your credit card information.

On unfamiliar sites, avoid using debit cards, Venmo or prepaid gift cards, which give the seller direct access to your funds and leave you no recourse. Paying via PayPal or credit card allows you to dispute the charge later if necessary.

If you do get in a jam using your card, contact the issuer pronto.

“If you’re a good customer and they don’t want to lose you,” says Linda Sherry of Consumer Action, “they’re going to try their best to help you.”

*All information about the Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature Card has been collected independently by CreditCards.com and has not been reviewed by the issuer. This offer is no longer available on our site.

Editorial Disclaimer

The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

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