2020 has been an unpredictable year for retailers. Some have seen sales slump sharply as previously popular product categories became less relevant to consumers who suddenly found themselves stuck at home, while others have had a hard time meeting a dramatic uptick in demand for things like workout gear, games, and home furnishings.

We can’t predict exactly what will happen between now and the end of December, but we do know that holiday shopping habits will be impacted by the pandemic and the knock-on effects it has had on the economy.

Though the shopping rush is already underway, there are still steps retailers can take now to make the most of the weeks to come.

How holiday shopping may look different this year

The biggest change we expect to see this holiday shopping season is that consumers will seek to avoid big crowds by shopping early and online. Though the official kickoff to the holiday shopping season is traditionally Black Friday, retailers have already been encouraging consumers to get started on their shopping as early as October.

Many consumers are experiencing financial hardship and uncertainty as a result of the pandemic and this is likely to impact spending this holiday season. Most projections estimate that this year’s overall holiday spending will be measurably less than it was last year. Spending on travel and entertaining is likely to see the greatest decrease. Retailers should think outside the box to craft marketing messages that resonate with the shifts in consumer priorities created by the pandemic and stay-home orders.

The pandemic may also impact the nature of the gifts people plan to give. As spending a majority of their time at home has become the norm, consumers are increasingly drawn to casual clothing and loungewear, as well as self-care categories, and games and entertainment. Gifts in these categories are likely to be popular. Plenty of consumers are also more eager than ever to shop local, which may give local retailers a much-needed boost.

What retailers can do to meet the moment

Though by now it’s too late to roll out any major site updates in advance of Black Friday, there are still actions retailers can take to ensure the most successful holiday season possible.

Plan for high volume

Though predictions are that spending will be down overall this year, anxieties about the virus will spur more people to turn to online shopping than ever before. That means one of the most important things you can do to prepare for the holiday rush is to ensure your website is prepared to handle an influx of traffic. Nothing is more likely to result in lost sales than a slow website or, worst case scenario, a crashed one.

Conduct stress testing as soon as possible to ensure your applications can handle an increased load of traffic and transactions over the holiday shopping period. Cloud-native solutions that provide elastic scaling and consumption based on current load are ideal in these circumstances. Those with on-premise or private cloud solutions should work with internal teams or providers to make sure strategies are in place to manage increased load.

Be transparent about policies

By now we are all aware that the surge in demand for online delivery has created backlogs and delays for shippers. While most shippers are hiring additional drivers to help meet holiday demand, we still anticipate that shipping times will be slower than normal in the weeks following Black Friday.

Even if you assume that your customers are aware of the shipping challenges posed by the pandemic, it’s still important to be completely transparent with them about what to expect in terms of holiday delivery. Be proactive in letting them know guaranteed delivery cut-off dates well in advance, and offer alternatives after those dates have passed (e-gift cards or curbside pickup, for example).

As the volume of online orders is expected to be greater this year, so too will the volume of online returns. Make sure you plan for this and factor returns into supply chain forecasting. Inform customers of your return policy at the time of purchase.

Offer alternatives for last minute shoppers

For retailers with a brick-and-mortar storefront now is a good time to implement buy online, pick-up in store (BOPIS) if you haven’t done so already. BOPIS and curbside pickup have been popular with consumers during the pandemic, allowing them to avoid shipping fees and delays. This is a great feature to cater to last minute shoppers this holiday season.

The pandemic has forced retailers to be nimble in terms of product offerings, website features, and marketing strategies. With the holiday season upon us, it’s time to make the most of a surge in consumer demand by prepping your applications to handle more traffic and delivering the experiences shoppers are looking for.


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