The New Mission for Retailers This Holiday

One thing we can be certain of this holiday season – there will be shoppers returning to stores. What is uncertain – how many and where, or what they will buy. Financially there will be the inevitable winners and losers, but let’s consider what else is at stake as the season begins. 

Online shopping has been a hero of the pandemic, but physical retail has a point to make – it is still an indispensable part of life. In fact, Kohl’s recently stated customers shopping both channels are six times more productive than digital-only shoppers, and four times more productive than those shopping stores only. 

Shopping is fundamental to experiencing the season. The holidays will mean venturing into a store after a long, pandemic-induced hiatus for many people. This is the moment the retail industry must alleviate anxiety and jump-start relevance. Think of it as a second chance to make a first impression. If retailers deliver an experience that fulfills the benefits of physical shopping – to explore, be inspired, engage the senses, and connect – they will create momentum going into 2021.

Reward the risk.
For many, the idea of venturing into busy retail centers and stores still seems risky. The desire to visit physical stores is partly to get deals, but it also gives an emotional immersion into the season. It makes it real.

Retailers are obliged to deliver on shopper expectations with a strong holiday spirit. Like going to see their favorite band, they will expect you to play your hits. This year more than ever, retail needs to deliver the familiar expectations of the season through store decoration, displays, and merchandising. Don’t hold back – dial it up. 

Stay disciplined.
When chaos is thriving, retail needs to be an oasis of order. Stress from the pandemic, combined with an anxious political climate, means that shoppers may be pre-loaded to expect chaos when shopping. Retailers must provide well-maintained displays and clear signage to not look like part of the problem, but part of the solution. 

Bad experiences will confirm expectations and be hard to shake off post-holiday. But erase the stress, and the shopping excitement can grow into a refreshed relationship. Shoppers are on a mission, and retail needs to over-deliver. Williams-Sonoma announced it will have a waiting list app to allow customers to reserve their spot in line, allowing them to leave and return when they have virtually reached the front of the line. The holidays always bring in new customers, and if you win their trust with a great experience, you could make them loyal year-round.

More than any other business, retail is the face of the holidays.

Be human.
Retailers can be easily substituted; people and communities cannot. Physical retail lifts the curtain on the app and online world of retail to expose the human side. Make it count. As the store merchandises your products, your people merchandise your brand and connect it to a place. 

Seek ways to demonstrate the human side of the store experience through elevated service levels and make it known that your people care. There is a big opportunity with BOPIS and curbside pick-up customers, where retailers can connect at a higher level than an anonymous UPS delivery. 

Learn and adapt.
Retailers also now face a host of new operational complexities. The pandemic has been an accelerator of BOPIS and curbside programs, meaning a lack of historical data from previous seasons to forecast what will happen. In most cases, human resources, space requirements, processes, IT contingencies, and the unintended consequences of these new business methods will be battle-tested for the first time. 

Shopper expectations are high, so be aggressive behind the scenes to adapt, adopt, and scale the adjustments and insights quickly to avoid aggravating shoppers. We’re already seeing retailers such as Target prepare, announcing it would change its staffing approach, dedicating more workers to same-day services such as curbside pick-up and hiring more people at distribution centers. 

Be kind.
“We’re all in this together” has become a cliche, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore what is behind it. The holidays are a perennial source of tension, pandemic, or not. Retailers need to take the effort to treat employees and customers with a heaping dose of grace. We all need to do what we can to respect each other, knowing that we can never know what someone else may be dealing with in these challenging times. 

The retail industry has the opportunity to turn this season into a critical first step in reengaging with shoppers for the long term by giving them a much-needed dose of joy. More than any other business enterprise, retail is the face of the holidays, so let’s all face it with a smile. Retailers are, in fact, all in this together.

Bill Chidley is a partner and executive director of strategy & insights at ChangeUp.

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