Five Tips for Retailers to Prepare for the 2020 Holiday Shopping Season

Sean Gunduz

Retailers who prioritize customers’ desires for a safe, efficient shopping journey will be the big winners this year.

The holiday season is always a stressful time for retailers, especially the ones that make the majority of their revenue in the short window between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Within this window is Black Friday, which, along with other “big holiday sales events” are going to look a lot different this year. Retailers must accommodate COVID-19 mandates that enable social distancing, minimize surface touching and actually restrict foot traffic in their facilities — all while trying to optimize sales. 

While there’s no single answer to this challenge, here are five tips retailers should keep top of mind as they make the best of these difficult times.

1.    Replicate the in-store-experience elsewhere
Enabling social distancing in stores may require having less merchandise on display, but who’s to say retailers must limit selling to their brick-and-mortar stores? 

Some retailers are expanding their footprints by setting up tents in their parking lots or other business locations. While going outdoors may be simpler for those located in warm southern states, even merchants in the northern states can make this work by renting sturdier tents and portable heaters. There may be empty business buildings available for short rental periods during the holiday season as well that a retailer could use to set up additional holiday merchandise.  

With any changes, it’s critical to communicate with customers ahead of time, so they understand why they should visit one location vs. another. Retailers also need to have reliable mobile POS strategies in place so customers can check out quickly from any location. 

2. Focus on in-store efficiency
With the pandemic-related mandates, merchants can’t do anything about the fact they’ll need to restrict foot traffic in their stores. But they can focus on making each customer’s visit as efficient as possible. Here are a few options to consider:

•    A concierge approach. While customers are waiting to get into the store, store associates can help offer assistance, such as telling a customer where specific items are located or providing an inventory update on a sale item. An associate could even assist customers with sales and merchandise fulfillment without the customer having to enter the store.

•    Shop by appointment. Another way to control crowds and optimize sales (especially for specialty retailers and restaurants) is to promote shopping by appointment. Like anything else, changing customer behavior works best with incentives such as exclusive access to sale items or additional services.

3. Look for new ways to fulfill orders
One of the biggest bottlenecks for retailers (especially during the holiday season) is the checkout line. The more ways merchants can enable customers to checkout without going through the regular checkout lines, the better. Here are some ideas for additional order fulfillment options:

• BOPIS (buy online pick up in-store). Customers love this service because it combines the benefits of online shopping (easy search and find) with the best of brick and mortar shopping (get the merchandise today). To provide an excellent BOPIS experience, retailers must integrate their store inventory and online ordering systems so customers can have accurate information about merchandise availability. 

It’s also vital to regularly update customers at each phase of the sales lifecycle — from payment confirmation to details about when and where they can pick up their orders. Creating a designated pickup area in the store that’s easy to find (e.g., not at the back of the store) is another must as well as staffing the BOPIS center, so customers don’t have to track down a store employee for assistance.
• Shopping assistants. Since the pandemic hit earlier this year, we’ve seen an explosion in third-party grocery shopping services such as Instacart, DoorDash and Grubhub. These same concepts can also work for other retailers — especially during the holiday shopping season. To minimize foot traffic in the main store area and front-of-store merchandise replenishment, consider setting up a designated “picking” area for shopping assistants at the back of the store. 

Once an order is completed, the shopping assistant could place it in a designated pick up area or deliver it to the customer’s home.

• Shop and Go apps. Offering this service takes self-checkout to a whole new level. Using their smartphones (or a store-provided scanner), customers scan items and place them in their cart. When they’re done, they pay electronically via the app and receive an electronic or printed receipt.

4. Make the returns process easier
With more customers being unable (or unwilling) to handle merchandise (e.g., trying on clothes) before making a purchase and more customers shopping online, retailers can expect more post-holiday returns. For online sales, keep in mind that shortsighted strategies like charging restocking fees or requiring customers to call a help desk to complete a return will backfire long-term. One reason Amazon continues to dominate in online sales is that they take the friction out of the buying — and return — process. Besides two-day shipping, they’re offering customers free returns via their partnership with Kohl’s.

5. Personalized experiences still matter
Creating a shopping environment that tries to minimize human contact and touch naturally lends itself to an impersonal experience — not to mention everyone wearing masks that hide smiles and other personable traits. 

To counteract some of these impersonal practices, retailers should look for ways to stay engaged with customers digitally. Here are a couple of suggestions:

• Offer empathetic messages. Retailers should use receipts, emails, text messages, signs and other digital channels to tell customers they’re appreciated, and the retailer is doing everything it can to keep them safe. Additionally, instead of assuming the worst when a customer enters the store without a mask, offer them a free mask that they can use in the store. 

• Use intelligent chatbots. AI technology has come a long way in recent years. Most people would be surprised to learn that many times when they’re engaging with a merchant’s online chat service, they’re not communicating with a human.

When these technologies are integrated with customer loyalty programs, they can make the shopping experience several times better. Retailers like REI do a great job at this. An outdoor enthusiast who purchases a camping tent, for instance, will receive personalized messages about setting up the tent and proper care along with helpful suggestions for additional complementary purchases. 

For example, several months after purchasing a camping tent, the same customer may receive a message about hiking boots and backpack tents, which an outdoor enthusiast who liked to camp would also be likely to enjoy.

• Keep traditions alive. Many of the shows and other activities people enjoyed in the past won’t be available this holiday season. Not only are these traditions important to customers, but some retailers have counted on these performances to bring customers to their stores afterward. 

With a little outside-the-box thinking, retailers may still be able to keep some of these traditions alive by sponsoring online performances, for example, and tying their sponsorship to special in-store merchandise or in-store experiences. For instance, if “The Nutcracker” play is moved online or canceled, a retailer could decorate its store with items used in the play or even have a meet-and-greet with some of the performers at its store. 

Preparation and planning remain the top two assets retailers need for a successful holiday shopping season. In addition to applying the tips above, it’s essential to show customers their safety is a top priority and empathizing with them that this isn’t the time for business as usual. 

Even if a retailer has to work out a few imperfections during the execution of these programs and services, customers will be far more forgiving if they feel that the merchant has their best interest in mind.

Sean Gunduz is interim director product management, business systems at Epson.  Prior to joining Epson in 2010, he held several product marketing roles with ViewSonic Corp and product management and account management responsibilities with BenQ.

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