Last updated: Retail holiday season: COVID-19 disrupts, retailers adapt

Retail holiday season: COVID-19 disrupts, retailers adapt


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Let’s add another item to the never-ending list of COVID-19 disruption: The retail holiday season 2020.

This year, the most important time of the year for consumer-focused brands and retailers will be unlike any other – and the stakes have never been higher. With so many businesses struggling to get through the initial wave(s) of the pandemic, this holiday season may be a make-or-break period for many. The challenges are great and the time is short for businesses to pivot and implement strategies to help them succeed this year.

Black Friday becomes pack (& ship) Friday

It would be trendy in the current environment to say that ‘Black Friday is canceled’. That’s not quite accurate, but don’t expect scenes of large crowds storming into stores to get their hands on limited doorbuster deals. In store shopping will be markedly different this year and this will have implications for the entire holiday season.

Despite the ongoing growth of e-commerce (which spiked dramatically during the initial pandemic lockdowns), Black Friday store traffic had remained significant in recent years. For many, shopping is social, and holiday shopping with friends and family is tradition. With store’s likely to face ongoing capacity restrictions this year, figuring out how to maximize store traffic while also shifting as many transactions as possible to digital commerce channels will be critical.

The conversion of Black Friday to a semi-virtual shopping event will have downstream implications for other important holiday shopping days, including Cyber Monday and Small Business Saturday. The outcome will be a holiday season that starts earlier than ever before. November 1st would be a good guess, except the reality will likely be even earlier.

Remember, Amazon did not cancel Prime Day, which had become an annual summertime event, they postponed it. When the rescheduled Prime Day is set, almost certainly sometime in the fall to front-run holiday demand, holiday season 2020 will begin in earnest.

Retail holiday season: How can merchants prepare for an ongoing Cyber Monday?

  1. Refactor promotional schedules to reflect an elongated holiday season.
  2. Double-down on segmentation and personalization to get the right offers to the right people at the right time. (Everyone will be inundated with offers. Make sure yours count.)
  3. Find and implement quick-wins around UX and customer experience. Seemingly small site improvements can significantly impact customer acquisition costs, conversion rates, and AOV, which directly affect revenue growth and profitability. (Start planning now for larger e-commerce re-platforming initiatives.)
  4. For omnichannel merchants, offer concierge experiences. Use extended store hours to schedule customer appointments. Offer assisted shopping services. Enable reserve online, purchase in-store capabilities.
  5. Make sure your products are available everywhere your customers might be, including marketplaces.

Fulfilling customer needs

With the additional surge in e-commerce we’ll see during the retail holiday season this year, it’s almost certain that the cut-off date to ensure product delivery by Christmas will be earlier than ever. Hopefully, we won’t see the stock-outs that plagued the early portions of the pandemic, but the shipping delays many of us experienced due to unprecedented order volumes will likely be repeated. This will call for related changes to marketing, promotional, and operational strategies.

Subsequently, the inevitable early start to the holiday season may offer some benefit to merchants. It will give them more time to convert customers earlier and process and fulfill orders to get ahead of demand.

Order management and fulfillment: How can merchants respond?

  • Optimize processes around order management and fulfillment.
  • For omnichannel merchants, shore-up and enhance click-and-collect capabilities. (Order pick-up with purchases already gift wrapped? What a nice touch.)
  • Communicate openly and transparently with customers around product availability and shipping times.
  • Ensure adequate stock on hand to meet demand
  • Where possible, diversity logistics / shipping providers to provide more flexibility in order fulfillment
  • Re-factor promotions to guide last-minute shoppers to virtual products (e.g. gift cards)

Data doesn’t lie – especially during the retail holiday season (nobody wants coal in their stockings, after all)

Data also can’t interpret itself. Perhaps the biggest unknown facing merchants this holiday season is gauging consumer demand. Economic uncertainty clouds the picture for many U.S. consumers. At the same time, after months of disruption to daily life, there is a strong desire to regain a sense of normalcy. The holiday season provides a once-a-year chance to do that. Give your customers reason to celebrate. Let data inform how you do that.

Initial data from this holiday season should provide queues whether consumers will be particularly value-conscious or ready to splurge on themselves and their loved ones. It may also expose geographic and demographic trends worth capitalizing on. The key is mining the relevant insights in time to put them to use.

Early in the pandemic all the major e-commerce and big box retailers had data that showed individual consumers started behaving like wholesale customers (i.e. hoarding). Unfortunately, no one was looking for that, so they didn’t connect the dots until products began running out, and we all know what happened next.

Optimizing analytics to boost CX: Top 3 things merchants should do

  1. Ensure robust site tagging that enables advanced analytics. Track primary and secondary conversions as well as supplemental goals to broadly measure performance.
  2. Use Business Intelligence tools and data analysis capabilities are in place to mine actionable insights (product, demographic, geo, channel, etc.).
  3. Have marketing and merchandising flexibility to react quickly to seasonal insights.

As we’ve seen clearly this year, those companies that provide the most mature digital commerce offerings have fared the best. The impact of digital extends across every sales channel. So, ensure that digital sits and the center of the customer experience and business strategy and be nimble this holiday season.

Holiday 2020 will be different for everyone on both sides of the transaction. Only time will tell how happy this holiday season will be, but businesses still have time to drive toward the best possible outcomes.

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