Experts: Holiday Shopping Will Start Earlier, Offer More Unique Experiences to Lure Customers

In a world permanently changed because of the coronavirus pandemic, retailers looking for their ideal shoppers this holiday season will need to prove that they are adapting to consumers’ needs, thinking of ways to provide new services or products as well as offer promotions that are timely given these new circumstances, experts said.

That means that Black Friday, Cyber Monday and every day in between now and January is important for stores not only looking for fourth-quarter sales but for real and lasting connection between themselves, their brands and everyday shoppers, industry experts added.

This year, holiday shopping will be much different in terms of timing, in-store shopping and branding. For example, many retail observers say they believe the holiday season will begin in October when Amazon has its annual “Prime Days,” scheduled for Oct. 13-14.

Interestingly, Target announced its “Deal Days” on Oct. 13-14, setting up a battle between the two mammoth retailers. Amazon has consumer loyalty through its Prime system, experts say, but Target has the brick-and-mortar locations to make its deals immediately available for those who want their purchases quicker than the U.S. Postal Service can deliver them.

Retailers overall all must understand that they need to update their strategies and promotions to be in alignment with consumers, who are forever changed in the way they think and shop because of the pandemic, said Deb Gabor, CEO of Sol Marketing, a brand strategy consultancy that has led brand strategy engagements for organizations ranging from international household names like Dell, Microsoft and NBC Universal.

Everything’s different – we are different. Human beings have been fundamentally changed by this experience,” Gabor said. “I’ve told every single brand that you have to reimagine your brand for the post-pandemic world because we are never going back to the way we were before. And we’re looking for leadership – people are looking to brands to show them how to feel, how to act and how to be.”

Black Friday
Traditionally, the holiday shopping season started on the day after Thanksgiving. This day was known within the shopping industry as Black Friday because of the size of sales most stores had that day – many would finally be “in the black” or make a profit for the year instead of being “in the red” for that same time period.

Shoppers began to see retailers push that holiday back further and further into November for the past few years, and sales have begun to seem boring to some consumers rather than unique, Gabor noted. Plus, with additional sales holidays like Cyber Monday and others, people no longer felt like in-person shopping was necessary when they could buy things online.

Data from Zenreach, a walkthrough marketing company, shows that nationwide, in-store foot traffic has been hovering around the 50% normal level for the past three months, rising from a low point of 20% when the coronavirus hit. Knowing that half of consumers are still shopping in stores is a testament to the power of the brick-and-mortar experience. 

For example, trade organization and industry leader National Retail Federation said Tuesday that “this holiday season will be unlike any other,” and it is launching a new, nationwide consumer education campaign called “New Holiday Traditions” to encourage consumers to shop safe and shop early amidst the coronavirus pandemic. 

The NRF said November is historically the most popular month to start holiday shopping. Despite concerns related to the coronavirus, 43% of holiday shoppers surveyed this year say they are waiting until November to start buying for the season, and a majority (59%) plan to shift more of their shopping online compared with last year, according to NRF’s annual consumer holiday survey.

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“In a year that has been full of uncertainty, we encourage consumers to avoid the last-minute stresses of the holiday season like long lines and shipping delays. Retailers are ready with inventory and sales, and there’s no reason to wait until Thanksgiving weekend to kick off your gift shopping,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said in a statement.

Holiday shuffle
Since the pandemic began in the United States, consumers are glued to their computer and smartphone screens, which has changed the way some people shop, Gabor said. Most importantly, people are looking for omnichannel shopping – they want more digital as well as smarter digital options. Moreover, when they are going out or going into stores, they want the experience to be tailored to their needs, such as curbside pickup, special small-group shopping events or other related services, she noted.

What Gabor is most concerned about is when retailers aren’t doing anything different than previous years. Promotions and discounts won’t be enough this year or in the future, she predicts.

“The trend before is to offer nothing big except moving the timing of the holidays up by weeks at a time. I’m not exaggerating when I say people were doing back-to-school shopping at the same time as they were starting to see Christmas stuff in the stores,” Gabor said. “When all you have is move up the dates of the holiday and issue discounts then you basically are instead of creating a strong retail experience that bonds with people and creates irrational loyalty that gets you shopping for the rest of the year you’re putting your business in the same category as every other.”

Brick-and-mortar stores have an advantage this year as well as small businesses, Gabor said, because they can do more special events and experiences that engage people’s five senses. Online stores cannot connect to consumers that way, she noted. This means creating personalized experiences, local delivery, shopping-for-a-cause events and highly immersible moments for people coming into a shop or location.

“Physical retailers have the ability to differentiate in a way that online never can,” Gabor said. “This also is a time for local business to really shine versus massive chain retail.”