Retail reporting

Making a list: The retailer’s complete guide to a pandemic holiday season

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    Meg Buchanan
  • Oct 08, 2020

Navigate a successful pandemic holiday season with these best practices. 

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The hustle and bustle of the holiday shopping season will look a bit different this year, but the season is far from cancelled. As consumer digital spending habits morphed and changed over 2020, retailers reacted in stride— educating, shifting, and pivoting themselves to better handle this year’s holiday season.

Learn how they are preparing (and how you can too!) for a COVID-19 shopping season with a shift from brick and mortar to digital storespaces, aiding customers in shopping safely with contactless commerce, and an entire three months devoted to shopping from home, in our holiday retail coverage below.

Where are you, Black Friday? Retailers kick off holiday shopping early to pace shoppers and avoid crowding

In an effort to keep customers safe and crowds at bay, many big box retailers are offering holiday sales as early as October as well as completely closing down on Thanksgiving to encourage consumers with online shopping opportunities.

Further, companies including Hasbro, Target, and Macy’s have released plans to offer sales over a longer period, starting in late October. What does this mean for consumer spending habits? It might mean Black Friday will cease to exist in the way it once was. And maybe that’s a good thing.

Despite unemployment rates and occupancy limitations on in-person shopping, shopping sales are expected to grow this holiday season between 1 and 1.5 percent, an almost $1.2 trillion increase in overall holiday spending. On top of that, online sales are expected to grow between 25 and 30 percent and account for nearly 17 percent of total retail sales this year.

So while consumer’s in-person shopping experiences may be more limited, they are also no longer restricted to the business hours at the mall, a certain door buster deal on a single day of the year, or even waiting to the last minute to get the best deal around. In expanding the digital shopping experience, retailers also can expand the sales this season giving customers the ability to shop whenever, however they want.

Do you hear what I hear? Communication between brands and customers is more critical than ever

Many of the changes retailers and shoppers are experiencing are for the better, especially the increased flexibility shoppers are enjoying.

Change, though, necessitates communication. In this case, retailers need to ensure they’re communicating with shoppers in a mindful way that respects their needs and desire for safety while also providing timely, relevant information.

Digital communication with customers has been crucial during the pandemic, and that will continue to be the case (and even more so) during the holiday season.

With people shopping for a very specific purpose for a very specific time frame, businesses are preparing to communicate across multiple mediums in real-time while notifying customers about delays, safety precautions, and product availability alongside record digital traffic and online ordering.

Walmart is preparing for just that in sharing its 2020 holiday shopping plans about how the company will make shopping a safer experience—including plans to hire more than 20,000 seasonal workers to safely satisfy customer shopping needs (that’s a lot of elves).

For large organizations like Walmart to keep their customer and employees safe, this means using a flexible, remote call center and communicating to customers throughout the holiday season about COVID-19 safety precautions, as well as delays that may occur due to higher shipping volumes.

And it’s not just big box stories who need to be thoughtful. For small- and medium-sized businesses, communication with your customer base will be especially important during the holidays. With 85 percent of consumers finding operational update messages important during the pandemic, keeping your customers in the know will be vital, regardless of company size. Let’s look at how to do just that—the right way.

Carol of the Sales: Creating an omnichannel experience that online customers will appreciate, and ensuring safety for in-person shoppers

On average, holiday sales bring in 20 percent of a retailer’s annual revenue. Being strategic about how you’re using your key marketing channels will be vital to success this year.

Last year alone, 78 percent of U.S. holiday shoppers used three or more channels to do their holiday shopping. With fewer safe in-store shopping opportunities, businesses will need to get creative with where and when they’re reaching their customers and utilize omnichannel marketing to drive sales virtually and in-person.

This means going beyond individual marketing channel shopping experiences, and making sure all channels are working together to give an integrated, connected, and up-to-date experience regardless if your customer jumps from one channel to the next. Letting customers pay on the channel they prefer, for example—such as directly via WhatsApp or Instagram, as many retailers are now doing—is one way to reduce friction and make the digital shopping experience more enjoyable for consumers.

While the emphasis is, understandably, on the online experience, that doesn’t mean in-person shopping is going away. For many consumers, buy-online-pickup-in-store, or BOPIS, practices are becoming second nature, and as such, businesses will also need to get creative with how they are fulfilling orders quickly, safely, and use unique strategies like using stores as online fulfillment centers as well as curbside pickup and contactless delivery.

One unique trend we’ve seen is how some retailers are leveraging IoT to help forecast shopper density and even assign parking spots to ensure proper social distancing.

With 53 percent of shoppers planning to use contactless shopping this season and 47 percent planning to use BOPIS options and curbside pickup, having all possible options available will be integral to their overall shopping experience.

There’s no place like home for the holidays: Retailers must ensure a safe, secure experience above all else

Web traffic increases and the fact more personal information is being shared online during the holiday shopping season means a pandemic holiday is a hacker’s holiday too. To address this, companies are increasing cybersecurity safeguards to keep customer data safe so customers can shop with confidence from home.

Nothing destroys consumer trust like fraud. Nationwide, losses from account takeovers and stolen card information is in the billions, and that doesn’t even take into account the lost sales and resulting loss of trust that impact a company for the long term.

While this trend of bad actors taking advantage of retailers and holiday shoppers is certainly nothing new, it has been on the rise since COVID-19 caused a massive spike in online shopping earlier this year.

Ensuring strong account authentication practices is a core component of a secure shopping experience, and one no retailer can afford to ignore. Every interaction with a customer, online or in-person, is an opportunity to build trust, and ensuring your shoppers are who they say they are is step one.

‘Tis the season

The lines between e-commerce, physical stores, and mobile continue to become blurred and customers now expect communications across all of these mediums to be consistent, flexible, and seamless.

The shoppers rushing home with their treasures have a bit of a different ring this year as retailers prepare for a far different holiday season than ever before. Learn more about how you can prepare for a successful holiday season, with our 2020 guide here.

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Meg Buchanan

Meg Buchanan is a Colorado native, a Kansas Jayhawk, and a proud multi-tasking millennial. As Twilio's Content Marketing Manager, she has more than seven years of experience writing for both agencies and in-house brands on topics from healthcare to hospitality.