Top 10 Shopping Trends for the 2011 Holiday Season

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Here’s a look back at the frantic holiday shopping season that’s just passed—and that, among other things, reached a high point for self-gifting, shoplifting, free shipping, and procrastination. Without further adieu, this holiday season’s top 10 shopping trends.

Online Shopping. Brick-and-mortar stores fared better than expected this holiday season. Based on strong sales over Black Friday weekend and beyond, the National Retail Federation upgraded its holiday sales forecast, with the originally anticipated 2.8% sales increase transformed into a 3.8% rise, for a projected record of $469.1 billion in overall sales. Even so, the real growth segment in retail is online shopping, which experienced a 15% rise over last year. An all-time high $1.25 billion was spent online on Cyber Monday alone.

Free Shipping. One reason why online spending has been so robust is the near ubiquity of free shipping offers. What with more than 9 out of 10 retailers offering free shipping for online orders at some point during the holiday season, there’s been a fundamental shift in consumer expectations. In the past, free shipping was an exciting perk. But now? It seems essential to closing the deal, as consumers have basically come to expect free shippingbefore, during, and even after the “official” Free Shipping Day. As USA Today reported, the exciting bonus for online orders is no longer free shipping on delivery, but free shipping on returns as well.

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Procrastination. Every year, procrastinators wait until the last minute to buy gifts. As late as one week before Christmas 2011, one-quarter of consumers hadn’t even started holiday shopping. Thanks to special offers that included free expedited shipping on orders placed as late as December 23, along with last-minute sales in stores open 24 hours a day just before Christmas, it was easier than ever to justify procrastination during the holiday season of 2011.

Self-Gifting. Each year, more and more consumers seem to feel that they’ve behaved nice enough to deserve a holiday season gift picked out by the individual who knows (and loves?) them best. Last year, 57% of holiday shoppers bought gifts for themselves, up from 52% during the 2009 holiday season. Looking out for No. 1 just keeps on growing more popular, as 6 in 10 shoppers said they would self-gift this year.

The 1,000-Pound E-Retail Gorilla. If it wasn’t clear before, it should be now: Amazon‘s in the business of making sales, not friends. Among the ways Amazon pushed the competitive envelope this year were by launching Black Friday deals 24 days before Black Friday, floating Cyber Monday-esque deals for two weeks after Cyber Monday, and, most notoriously, unleashing an “evil” promotion that encouraged shoppers to browse in physical stores before ultimately buying goods from Amazon at a discount.

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‘Special’ Shopping Events Every Other Day. Because of the success of officially branded shopping events such as Cyber Monday and Free Shipping Day—neither of which existed a decade ago—consumers are now faced with a “special” shopping day at every turn, including made-up events like Green Monday and Gift Card Weekend.

Shopping at the Low End. Among the hottest spots for holiday shopping this season were dollar stores and pawn shops. Both experienced stronger-than-average sales, and surely the economy—and the need for many to stretch their dollars as far as possible—was a prime reason.

Shopping at the High End Too. Early indications pointed to a significant rise in luxury spending this holiday season, and it looks like the rich have not disappointed. The Boston Globe reported that sales were booming at pre-recession levels at stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Nieman Marcus.

Shoplifting. While paying big bucks for holiday gifts is on the rise, so is paying no bucks whatsoever for goods. The Associated Press notes that during the four weeks leading up to Christmas, shoplifters will steal $1.8 billion worth of merchandise from stores worldwide, a 6% rise from the 2010 season.

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Returns. For many consumers, even before Christmas arrived, “Black Friday remorse” kicked in, and a staggering amount of freshly purchased items was returned. The National Retail Federation estimates that slightly less than 10% of this year’s holiday season purchases will be returned, compared to just 7% during periods when the economy is strong. A flood of returns is typical of January, not December, so this year returns are occurring earlier than normal too.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.