As retailers prepare for the upcoming 2021 holiday season (< 100 days ‘til Christmas!), there are big questions as to what Holiday 2021 will look like. Will it look like the traditional retail season we saw in 2019? Will it look like the COVID-influenced season of 2020? Somewhere in-between? There is no shortage of prognosticators out there trying to predict the season, but I’m taking a slightly different approach. I’ll share some lessons learned from the past two seasons, and 5 things you should be considering regardless of the shape and size of the holiday season this year.
Note: I recently joined a panel discussion with our partners at MessageGears on the topic. Watch the recording for further dialogue and perspectives.
- You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.
- The eCommerce explosion that occurred due to COVID in 2020 won’t retrench towards 2019 levels. Habits that were formed last year (among the digitally savvy and digital laggards alike) are here to stay and will only continue to accelerate. Along with expanded online shopping and a greater volume of sales through digital, retailers should expect continued/expanded use of Buy Online, Pick Up in Store (BOPUS) and Curbside Pickup to complement traditional direct shipping for online sales. Consumers have gained confidence in these delivery methods, and they are now expected fulfillment options.
- 2021 Consideration: Fulfillment flexibility will be key – retailers should offer multiple ways to receive products with little bias between options (i.e., don’t try to artificially manipulate consumer preference with fees). Consumers will gravitate towards the option that is most convenient in the moment, and that same consumer will likely leverage multiple options throughout the season based on need, convenience, and inventory availability. To support the customer as online shopping continues to grow, make sure your product information is accurate and declare availability by channel.
- Can I get some help over here?
- Resource constraints will continue to be front and center throughout 2021 and into 2022. Finding seasonal holiday labor is expected to be a challenge and many stores will continue to operate with less-than-ideal staffing levels. Along with this constraint comes increased customer frustration. Store personnel need to be prepared to deal with a wide range of emotionally charged customers, especially as the shopping window shrinks leading up to the actual holidays.
- 2021 Consideration: Transparency is key – make sure shoppers are aware of store hours and ideally, staffing levels. Position senior or experienced leaders where they can support a broader team of seasonal staff. If you are forced to have a minimal in-store team, make sure that an experienced resource is available vs. just seasonal help, and provide seasonal help with the digital tools (and training on how to use them) to offset lack of experience. Consider an internal messaging tool to scale the ability of an experienced, full-time employee to support a broader range of seasonal team members. This will enable them to efficiently help more customers and decrease pent up frustration. Also consider separating checkout from service, with the seasonal team members on the registers to create specializations where they can become faster more quickly.
- Will it be home for Christmas?
- Supply chain and shipping issues aren’t going away anytime soon, and in most cases, this is outside the retailer’s control. Customers will need additional reminders of potentiality to avoid the last-minute pitfalls created by product shortages and delayed shipping at third-party carriers. A compound effect is anticipated here, where we may see inventory shortages and delayed product availability leading to increased stress on shipping windows for the holidays.
- 2021 Consideration: Transparency is again the key – make sure customers are aware of these challenges, encourage early season shopping and don’t oversell or sell against potential inbound inventory. Messaging should reinforce that customers should not procrastinate. Overcommunicate regarding inventory availability, order confirmation, shipping status updates, and delivery notifications. Make sure messages are concise, accurate, and timely. If an item is out-of-stock, let customers know via social channels so they don’t continue to pound the website hoping to get lucky, and ensure you have a solid lineup of similar product information that you can promote in the sold-out item’s place.
- BOT it was in my cart.
- High-demand items will again be the target of ruthless shopping BOTs, which will create chaos and friction with even the best laid merchandising plans. Consumers will gravitate toward trusted partners who have a reputation for BOT defense over retailers that ignore this challenge. While inventory considerations will ultimately drive sales for these specific products, the overall brand damage caused by the amplification of customer frustration over this shopping experience may be exponentially greater.
- 2021 Consideration: Make sure your site has strong BOT protection. I encourage retailers to take some lessons learned from the challenges with the PS5 release last year. An interesting and successful tactic I saw last year was two-factor authentication at checkout, asking to verify your account humanity via single-use code in the cart. Additionally, encourage customers to create online accounts NOW, so that when they are vying for that limited item, they don’t have extra steps in the moment that put them at a disadvantage vs. authenticated customers.
- But I shop online here all the time, how do you not know me?
- With consumers using more digital shopping tools than ever, it’s important that they get the same experience online as they do in the store. If something can be done in the store, it should be doable online. Returns, size exchanges, and some other advanced transactions are still challenging to complete online, if they are even offered. Forcing someone who prefers to shop online into a store to solve a common situation will create increased friction.
- 2021 Consideration: If you can do it in person, you need to be able to do it remotely. Make advanced account functions available via digital and in a self-service manner (e.g., size exchange). If you can’t be in a position to offer something, declare early and boldly that it needs to happen in-store, so the customer isn’t hunting for a way to do it online that doesn’t exist.
Retail tactics have traditionally encouraged driving people to stores. Now they need to shift to managing traffic flow, encouraging online ordering, and self-service. It’s a foundational change to retail theory that will continue to play out over the next few years.