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The Strive to Survive a COVID-19 Holiday Shopping Season

By Jack M. Germain
Oct 19, 2020 12:04 PM PT
sellers and shoppers struggle with the 2020 holiday shopping season

The upcoming holiday season is looking a lot different than anyone would have suspected this time last year, as a result of the continuing pandemic. Holiday shoppers are forced to shift their buying habits, and merchants continue to struggle to find new processes to meet consumer whims.

Much is up in the air, from the fate of USPS, to travel plans, to the economy. Marketing reports show that more than 75 percent of consumers are avoiding shopping malls. Even traditional advertising approaches no longer work as other industry surveys show that consumers view social media outlets as a new way to find gift ideas as well as purchase them.

All of these changes make it critical for marketers to adapt in an effort to recover lost sales and attract new customers for their products. Staple sales events like Black Friday and Cyber Monday, traditional beacons for grabbing shoppers' attention, are in doubt.

Instead, many major retailers are now extending deals throughout the entire holiday season. Retailers are offering incentives to keep shoppers engaged, like giving the best deals via loyalty apps and highlighting sales of the day on social media and through months-long sales events.

2020 has definitely been a year for the history books for online stores, with COVID-19 and social distancing requirements impacting many aspects of people's lives and hugely influencing consumers' buying behaviors, causing hypergrowth in e-commerce sales, according to Liat Karpel Gurwicz, head of strategic marketing at Wix.

"The biggest change in the 2020 holiday season will be for in-store sales. This year will see the end of one of the holiday season's biggest marketing events as we know it: Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when retailers normally launch holiday season shopping with huge discounts in their stores," she told the E-Commerce Times.

Closed for Thanksgiving

Forget about the customary long lines to buy gifts for loved ones and friends this upcoming holiday season -- and that is if you can even find a store that is open.

"The impact of COVID-19 on the retail industry has been massive. Many retailers and brands saw incredibly high e-commerce demand in 2020 but were not prepared to offset that demand and scale with professional e-commerce and fulfillment solutions," noted Gurwicz.

Some businesses were forced to shut physical locations permanently. Many retailers had to quickly start their online stores for the first time. Even those who already had e-commerce stores had to make significant adjustments to their online business to manage their inventory, logistics, e-commerce shipping, and more, she explained.

For instance, Best Buy, Dick's Sporting Goods, Walmart, Sam's Club, and Target, among others, announced in recent weeks their intention to limit in-store hours. They will be closed on Thanksgiving, too.

A new phenomenon this year is the growing adoption of contactless gifting. This allows customers to digitally gift a retailer's merchandise and gift cards online.

Delayed Shipping Tactic Reduces Returns

While we are on the topic of contactless stuff, throw into the mix contactless payment systems and contactless in-store shopping. Brick-and-mortar stores are starting to emulate the do-it-yourself approach that comes with online shopping.

The supply and delivery chains are also a growing concern that impacts both marketers and consumers. Shipping companies have already announced holiday surcharges and are moving up shipping deadlines by weeks at a time.

Merchants are starting to separate shipping from delivery by utilizing instant digital gift delivery. This is a strange new approach to e-commerce.

Retailers make the sale. Gift givers send the gift via email or text. The recipients receive a delightful digital gifting experience on their devices.

The actual product is physically shipped and arrives whenever it gets there. This process offers convenience to both the gift receiver and the merchant. Gift recipients can customize their gift by selecting a color, size, shipping address, and such before it ships, thus preventing returns.

The Retail Challenge

Among the biggest challenges confronting retailers in terms of website marketing and consumer transactions as we head into the 2020 holiday shopping season is the supply chain. Supply chains were also badly compromised during the pandemic. Many factories and suppliers closed for weeks or even months, Gurwicz said.

She highlighted three key issues for retailers and e-tailers this holiday season. Despite these potential challenges though, with the proper preparations and considerations, businesses can turn this holiday season into a huge success.

  1. Store owners have had little time to plan, restock, or update inventory. The result could leave them unprepared to meet the holiday season's demand.
  2. Businesses dependent on a sole-supplier or suppliers located in the same geographic area could be in real trouble if suppliers are forced to close or suffer slow delivery times.
  3. Getting packages to arrive on your customers' doorsteps this holiday season will also be significantly constrained. The increase in shipping demand alongside social distancing requirements in distribution centers means that traditional shipping providers will be at full capacity during the holidays.

"The pandemic has forced companies in almost every industry to rethink their supply chain -- moving away from reliance on other nations and improving their own capabilities to produce materials. Because of this, the value of shrinking and localizing the supply chain process through the use of AI is more apparent than ever," said Gurwicz.

Target the Customer Experience

The best customers are returning customers. They are less expensive to engage among other things are more willing to interact directly with immersive buying experiences and promotions, according to Melissa Sargeant, CMO of Litmus. But, in order to garner a loyal customer base, brands need to create intentional moments of engagement and inspiration. These experiences then drive brand love and advocacy.

"That is why, this upcoming holiday season, we will see more retailers and brands implement or upscale their loyalty programs to entice returning customers and to target those most attracted by personalized experiences. Brands want loyalty, and this particular holiday season they must give customers a reason to come back," she told the E-Commerce Times.

As retailers begin gearing up for the holiday season, the brands that create authentic, personal customer experiences will emerge from the economic crisis faster and better positioned than before, suggested Sargeant. If a brand's marketing efforts are not sustainable -- and only authenticity and personalization maintain sustainability -- they are creating a void in the market where another competitor can take their place.

"Or, even worse, they disappear completely, as brands can be very easily forgotten and left behind," she observed.

Never Too Late

Numerous market reports leading up to the 2020 holiday shopping season show signs of renewed interest by consumers to adapt to the new shopping conditions. An overwhelming majority of U.S. consumers will not let uncertain market conditions stop them from spending this holiday season.

Two factors stand out to give e-commerce retailers hope for this holiday season. One updates earlier predictions that the shuttered economy would shut down gifting purchases this holiday season. Reports now indicate that consumers are spending on gifting the same as or more than last year.

The second factor is consumers are spending earlier and are much more focused on buying products online. Price and customer reviews are the two most critical factors driving their purchase decisions, followed by ease and speed of shipping.

As they have been all year, e-commerce volumes will be higher than they have ever been this holiday shopping season, according to Carol Krakowski, director of insights at PowerReviews. A much more significant proportion of spending than usual will take place online. Brands and retailers need to expect and be ready for this.

"Almost three-quarters of consumers (74 percent) said their overall holiday spend will either stay the same or increase this year. This is perhaps surprising given the shape of the overall economy. However, it proves there are significant opportunities for brands and retailers to generate revenue this holiday season," she told the E-Commerce Times.

More shopping is taking place online this year. Customer ratings and reviews will be vital to driving sales this holiday season, she explained.

Online retailers should know that those online reviews offer exceptional validation and credibility, regardless of whether a brand or product is well known or not.

"Particularly this year, when shoppers are less inclined to visit a store to physically interact with products," said Krakowski said.

To-Do List for E-tailers

Managing inventory and deliveries this holiday season will require a strong e-commerce and fulfillment strategy. Wix's Gurwicz offers these tips to prepare your online business for the holiday season:

  • Plan and stock inventory in advance
  • Diversify your suppliers
  • Prepare and monitor fulfillment operations and staff
  • Offer both delivery and pickup options
  • Get your e-commerce website ready for the holidays
  • Stagger marketing efforts and promotions

The 2020 holiday season offers opportunities for digital merchants and online stores as nearly everyone will shop online this year, Gurwicz noted. But, at the same time, more businesses are clamoring for a piece of the pie than ever before. Online retailers must find creative ways to stand out.

"In the shadow of COVID-19, online stores who bring speed, value, and convenience to customers will be the 2020 holiday season winners. With careful planning and creative problem solving, this holiday season could be your store's best sales season yet," she predicted.


Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open-source technologies. He is an esteemed reviewer of Linux distros and other open-source software. In addition, Jack extensively covers business technology and privacy issues, as well as developments in e-commerce and consumer electronics. Email Jack.


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