The predictions generally foresee muted sales growth, but at least it’s growth. Shenck believes retail sales are likely to be about the same as in previous years as pent-up demand gets unleashed during the holidays. “People haven’t spent on things for themselves as much and are looking for a way to celebrate with their family,” he says.

They’re likely to buy different products than in the past, however, and through different channels. Forecasters generally foresee fewer dollars devoted to experiences such as going to shows or dining out. Shoppers also won’t be traveling as much. That leaves more money for buying gifts. Shenck and others predict more dollars going toward categories such as home goods, electronics, kitchen items, and products for keeping keeping cozy in the house, like activewear.

Many of those sales will occur online. Adobe Analytics predicts e-commerce sales will be 33% greater this year, or even higher depending on factors like a stimulus bill and store closures. Deloitte and Mastercard envision similar jumps. The surge could create problems for delivery companies as they get swamped with orders—another reason retailers have tried to get consumers shopping early for the holidays.

Shenck and BCG say retailers will need to use data to know where to staff workers, what stock to carry, and where to stock it. There’s more uncertainty than ever, and they need to work smarter to be successful.

Correction: An earlier version of this article named Boston Consulting Group’s head of retail as Nate Schenck instead of Nate Shenck.

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