How to successfully navigate the new holiday shopping season

By | 4 minute read | November 19, 2020

While this year has been mired in uncertainty, there is one thing we can be certain of – you’ve never seen a season like this. Online sales are already 2x what analysts originally forecasted, and with ‘buy online, pickup in store’ options for shoppers, local retailers win, too.

As retailers navigate these uncharted waters, here are five tips to help you make the most of this holiday season and meet evolving customer expectations based on the increased online order volumes you may be experiencing:

  1. Rethink your stores. With little foot traffic, particularly in shopping malls, a good deal of inventory is still in store and at risk of becoming dead stock. Ship-from-store, curbside pickup and buy-online-pickup-in-store (BOPIS) are all strategies to keep inventory moving while reducing the risk of rising shipping costs and delivery date uncertainty. To create satisfying customer experiences, you need to ensure products ordered online are actually available for customer pickup in store, something 86% of retailers say is a challenge.* Retailers can set the right expectations and get ahead of this with inventory visibility capabilities that help ensure there’s adequate inventory in store, and by aligning promotions to product availability. In addition to new store capabilities, consider same-day delivery services. While there may be overhead costs, it’s another way to offer customers peace of mind. Also, set up dedicated pick-up areas, like Best Buy and Tractor Supply, to ensure quick and efficient fulfillment. Then, position popular holiday gift items close-by since nearly half of all shoppers report making more purchases while picking up in-store. For shoppers who want to buy something on-the-fly that may not be in store, arm sales associates with handheld devices to place online orders and capture incremental sales.
  2. Put customers’ minds at ease about safety. Estimates vary, but anywhere from 40-60 percent of consumers plan to shop in-store. Regardless of geography or age group, clearly communicated safety protocols are the second most important factor to shoppers right now. As you drive traffic to your stores for curbside or in-store pickup, make sure you communicate how you are complying with guidelines around social distancing, mask wearing, sanitization, handling merchandise and contactless payment. Carter’s and REI are good examples. Clearly articulated policies set consumers’ minds at ease and can help with employee recruitment and retainment.
  3. Expect a surge in curbside pickup & more. This year, standing in long lines hours before a store opens to grab big deals is less likely to happen. Instead, consumers will be lining up inside their cars for curbside pick-up. And to take BOPIS a step further, now is the time to consider alternatives to offer BOPAS (buy online, pick-up at store) to better enable consumers a seamless pick-up at a locker located outside the store, or just inside. One of the benefits of extending the holiday shopping season is to give shoppers more time and space, but the curbside experience must be well managed and innovated further. Consumers don’t want to experience long waits and retailers don’t want to cause traffic flow problems. If you haven’t already, plan for signage to direct traffic, designated parking areas, cameras that notify staff when a car is in a spot, and ways to make it easy for customers to alert you when they are on their way and provide an estimated arrival time.
  4. Prepare for a deluge in returns. Under normal circumstances, returns are inevitable. And with the anticipated increase in online shopping, plus a possible inability to promise delivery dates, returns will continue to rise through the holiday season and beyond. Flexible returns/cancellation policy tops the list of important factors for consumers right now. Several months ago, many retailers extended their return periods beyond the typical 30-day timeframe. A longer holiday shopping cycle will trigger the need to revisit these policies, extending the timeframe further and getting creative with ways to guarantee a seamless return experience and reduce returned goods – which likely will be more difficult to resell than in years prior. Smart returns provide the consumer with a label to send the product back to the optimal location based on location and demand. And, of course, customers expect to be able to return products purchased online either in-store or curbside. Optimizing how returns are processed is essential to reduce margin erosion. With an omnichannel view of inventory visibility and reverse logistics capabilities, you can support a full array of practices.
  5. Enable your staff. We’ve spent the last several months shifting customers to omnichannel services, yet many retailers haven’t adequately empowered and motivated store staff to support this shift. In fact, 88% of retailers have found it challenging to manage store staff incentives and goals to align with supporting omnichannel orders, and 80% have had difficulty training store staff to properly pick, pack and ship online orders.* Retailers are also asking sales associates to deliver online personal shopping services or field customer service calls. As you roll out new fulfillment services and return policies, employees need to know how to manage these new ways of engagement. If you haven’t already, start training and equipping staff with the resources they need to excel in their new roles, and aligning metrics and KPIs to new priorities.

You may already have some of these best practices in place and can adopt more during the extended 2020 holiday season. But new behaviors are here to stay. Look to 2021 as the year to fully embrace a digital strategy. How consumers shop will vary by situation — constantly switching between online and in-person experiences. Increase agility, like leading retailers Walmart and Home Depot who are gearing up to support this reality, to deliver on customer promises – whatever may come.

*Forrester’s Q1 2020 Omnichannel Panel Survey