Holidays: What Retailers Need to Know

The holiday season is undoubtedly the most important shopping event in the retail industry. Which is why proper planning and preparations are key. The best way to get ahead is to anticipate consumer trends and behaviors so you can adapt accordingly for the holidays. 

While no one can accurately predict the future (particularly in today’s retail environment), we can make educated guesses by looking at what happened last year and analyzing the data that’s starting to emerge. We also caught up with a few experts to bring you some insights and tips on how to prep for the holiday season. 

Have a look below.

Consumers are still willing to spend 

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Here’s the good news: people are still planning to spend money this holiday season. A recent survey by Shopkick found that 63% of shoppers expect to spend the same amount on holiday shopping as they did in 2019. Fourteen percent said they intend to spend even more this year, while only 23% are looking to cut back. 

It’s good to see that most consumers intend to shop during the holidays. Bear in mind that where and how they’ll shop will be extremely different this year.

All the experts we caught up with said that because of the pandemic, most consumers will stick to online shopping. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Last year, industry data showed that foot traffic was down 6.2% on Thanksgiving weekend, despite an overall increase in spending. 

This trend will be much more pronounced this year because of COVID-19. We can expect people to continue spending throughout the holidays, but less action will be taking place in brick and mortar stores. 

To stay competitive, retailers need to stay on top of their ecommerce and order fulfillment game. Here’s how. 

Emphasize ease of use 

“We’re going to see a major shift toward online ordering in the run-up to the 2020 holiday season. In response, retailers need to devote their attention to ensuring that their digital operations run as smoothly as possible,” says Monica Eaton-Cardone, co-founder and COO at Chargebacks911.

“As a retailer, you need to have a thorough understanding of the customer journey across every shopping channel, and at every stage of the experience. For instance, is your platform easy to search and navigate? Does it guide buyers seamlessly through the process? Is it easy for customers to get live help if needed? Is it easy to return or exchange products?”

“You need to perform a thorough review of these processes to spot potential hiccups and roadblocks before the holiday season really gets underway. Otherwise, you could face disruptions of service, angry customers, abandoned shopping carts, and chargebacks,” says Eaton-Cardone.

You still have several weeks before the holidays kick in, so take this time to evaluate your digital shopping experience. Take the steps outlined above and add them to your holiday prep to-do list. 

Unless you do it on time, in full, at every site, you are not executing at all

Prepare for the online onslaught

According to Matthew Burke, who runs the website The Complete Guide to Archery, retailers “need to have their online stores ready for an onslaught.”

“During COVID-19, our online sales absolutely exploded. I can’t say how surprised we were by this — the unemployment rate had just spiked past 15%, and people were literally waiting on checks from the government — and yet we were selling archery equipment at a breakneck speed. We were happily confused at first, but it makes sense: every single pro shop in the U.S. had closed, so people were doing ALL their archery shopping online, at sites like ours.”

This holiday season, don’t let your website get caught off guard. Having a slow or buggy website will send shoppers away faster than you can say “Happy Holidays.” So ensure that your ecommerce platform can handle the holiday rush. Upgrade the necessary systems and stress test your site if needed.

Consider online marketplaces

Shopkick’s research found that 72% of respondents plan to purchase gifts on Amazon, 56% plan to do it on Etsy, and 43% are looking to eBay.

Consumers are clearly big fans of these marketplaces. They may be worth looking into if it makes sense for your business. 

Stop leaving money on the table with poorly executed merchandising

Tighten up your order fulfillment processes

“Given the expected demand of online shopping this year, shipping carriers may have longer shipping times,” remarks Nicholas Daniel-Richards, the co-founder of ShipHero.

His advice? Set expectations and communicate with shoppers to ensure that their orders arrive on time. 

“Brands that communicate with customers ahead of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, as well as set expectations with site messaging and email communication, will be able to give shoppers a heads up so their customers are not disappointed with delayed times.”

Daniel-Richards recommends being flexible with carriers and shipping methods. 

“A solution would be to offer a paid expedited shipping option if you’re not already, more consumers are comfortable paying for shipping if it ensures delivery. With everything we’re seeing happening, it’s most likely that USPS delivery times are going to be slower. I recommend using multiple carriers (DHL, FedEx, UPS) in addition to USPS just in case a single carrier forecasts major shipping delays.”

Optimize Your Warehouse and Fulfillment Operations

With online orders hitting record highs, your inventory warehouses and fulfillment centers need to be operating at optimal productivity levels. Review your standard operating procedures (SOPs) now to prevent delays later. You may need to put new procedures in place. If so, an app like Bindy can help you roll out your new SOPs and ensure program adoption throughout the holiday season with regular smart audits and inspections

Since COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere soon, more staff on the floor of your warehouses and fulfillment centers means additional safety and social distancing protocols. Bindy can also help you train, rollout, and keep these policies updated.  

Deals will start early and end late

One trend that we’ve been seeing these past few years is the rise of early and extended holiday promotions. 

Last year, for instance, Walmart kicked off its holiday sales a full five weeks before Thanksgiving. Target followed suit two weeks later. Many retailers also extended their holiday deals by offering promotions even after Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

And with 2020’s social distancing measures plus the race to make up for poor Q3 performance, these early and extended holiday promos are guaranteed to happen for holidays 2020. 

In fact, retailers will likely start running holiday events much earlier.

According to Daniel-Richards, “demand is estimated to be higher, we’re seeing this across our customers who are already ramping up for the holiday season. A big trend we are seeing is that brands are running promotion campaigns earlier.”

To compete, he suggests implementing early and swift customer communications, particularly when it comes to product availability and fulfillment.

“I recommend that you communicate your stock availability and shipping assurances to customers clearly during the shopping and checkout experience. Consumers are more focused on making sure that their purchases will ship and arrive on time, so it is important to have clear communication throughout the customer journey.”

We can’t discount brick and mortar completely

Ecommerce will hit it big in this year’s holiday season, but that doesn’t mean we can disregard physical retail completely. For one thing, a segment of consumers will continue shopping offline, so if you’re allowed to stay open, expect some foot traffic to hit your stores.

Secondly, brick and mortar stores will play an important role when it comes to order processing. Aside from the prevalence of in-store and curbside pickup, having the ability to ship online orders from the nearest store can lower shipping costs, expedite delivery, and keep customers happy — all of which are critical if you want to stay competitive during the holidays.

Consider what happened last year: Black Friday foot traffic may have been down, but many stores were still busy. A Target branch in Brooklyn, for instance, saw fewer Black Friday customers, but associates were frantically “pushing carts through aisles to collect products ordered online by shoppers for home delivery or for pickup.”

Optimize your location for smooth order processing

Holidays 2020: Tips for Retailers
Image credit: Shutterstock

If you’re implementing initiatives like ship-from-store, local delivery, BOPIS, and curbside pickup, make sure your in-store, backroom, and warehouse processes are in top shape. The right store setup depends on your location and procedures, but generally, optimizing your store for smooth order processing involves:

  • Designing procedures for order pickups and shipments
  • Training your team on the new processes
  • Clarifying roles and responsibilities for online orders, specifically when it comes to:
    1. Retrieving products from your shelves 
    2. Wrapping and packaging your merchandise
    3. Printing labels and coordinating with couriers (for orders that need to be shipped)
    4. Interfacing with customers (for in-store or curbside pickup)
  • Setting up designated areas for shipments
  • Setting up designated areas for pickups

Ensure that your processes and initiatives are carried out smoothly by inspecting and auditing your store operations. Create checklists and tasks to keep everyone on the same page, and make communication and collaboration a priority. The holidays are always a crazy time and with in-store associates learning new procedures and responsibilities. Therefore, it’s critical that your internal comms are open and clear.

Accommodate guests safely

If you’re planning to have in-store deals and anticipate shoppers to head to your physical store, you need to take precautions. In addition to best practices like regularly sanitizing surfaces, requiring masks, and enforcing social distancing, you may need to rethink your store layout for holidays 2020. 

“Shoppers should expect wider aisles and more flexible interiors, as well as floor signs to space out customers and encourage one way traffic flows, all part of social distancing protocols. Many stores should also utilize only one entrance and exit to avoid collisions,” says Todd Dittman, CEO and Executive Director of the Shop! Environments Association.

Having a system for managing crowds (just in case) is also important. 

Retailers “should put in measures to control the flow of clients into their premises,” says James Jason, chief marketing officer at Mitrade. “Previous occurrences like crowding during Black Fridays will not be allowed. Retailers can introduce waiting spaces outside their stores complete with social distancing rules so they can control the number of shoppers inside at any given time.”

Holidays 2020: accommodate guests safely
Image credit: Shutterstock

Omnichannel customer service is more important than ever

Gearing up for the holidays isn’t just about preparing your store and ecommerce site; your customer service game should also be strong. 

Your customer service department will see a major spike in activity this holiday season, and this applies to multiple channels. Research by the CRM platform Kustomer found that the 2019 holiday season brought about a:

  • 2x increase in email conversations 
  • 1.3x increase in chat conversations 
  • 1.5x increase in voice conversations 
  • 6x increase in Instagram conversations

Expect more inquiries in the coming months and be prepared to address them on your customers’ favored channels. Kustomer’s research found that 88% of shoppers get frustrated when they can’t connect with a company on the channel they prefer. Failing to meet consumers where they’re at will cost your business. 

Bringing it all together

The 2020 holiday season promises to be a busy one, though it will look very different from the shopping seasons from years past. To win, retailers need a strong digital presence coupled with smooth in-store processes and the ability to serve shoppers on multiple channels. 

Francesca Nicasio is retail expert, B2B content strategist, and LinkedIn TopVoice. She writes about trends, tips, and best practices that enable retailers to increase sales and serve customers better. She’s also the author of Retail Survival of the Fittest, a free eBook to help retailers future-proof their stores.

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