C-Suite Lifestyle

How Retailers Can Prepare for a Unique Holiday Shopping Season

The holiday shopping season seems to start earlier every year. But after the 2020 we’ve had, this fall will undoubtedly be a little different. Right?

Yes and no.

Consumers probably won’t be packing into retail outlets and shopping malls in the coming months, but they’ll continue to shop online as they have throughout the pandemic. According to a recent Radial survey, 39% of consumers plan to start their annual holiday shopping spree as early as this month. Meanwhile, a Berkeley Research Group study revealed that some shoppers have already gotten a jump on their holiday shopping through early promotions such as Amazon’s October Prime Day.

That’s good news for retailers that continue to struggle through the lingering pandemic. If you’re one of them, it’s critical to squeeze as much revenue as you can out of the next few months. Start preparing now by taking the following steps:

Ready your customer service team.

Before the pandemic, executives and analysts had already earmarked customer experience as the element that would help brands stand out in crowded markets. In this new retail climate, experience matters even more. Without the ability to lean on dynamic in-store experiences that attract and delight customers, retailers will have to ensure that service — across all channels — is a top priority.

There are various ways to enhance customer service efforts, and you should capitalize on as many as you can. To start, make sure you can communicate with customers throughout the entire customer journey. More than 70% of customers expect brands to engage with them in real time, and meeting that expectation means meeting customers where they are.

For prospective customers who aren’t yet familiar with your brand, that could be on social media. Ramping up your social presence doesn’t have to be expensive, but you should have a dedicated team working to drive engagement on relevant social channels. And they don’t all have to be human.

Modern chatbots can conduct relatively seamless interactions with consumers while delivering on-brand experiences. Chatbots can be integrated into Facebook Messenger (and other messaging apps) to help answer questions or alert prospective customers of timely sales. You could also use chatbots on your website to make sure visitors have access to the information or people they’re seeking before, during, and after a purchase. You may need to add to your human customer service team, and now is the right time to make sure they have the resources and training necessary to handle an increased workload.

Adjust your messaging to fit the mood.

Successful marketing during the pandemic is all about empathy. Understanding your audience’s thoughts and feelings has always been important, and messaging should account for those factors. But now, you also have to show customers that you understand. Different audience segments harbor significantly different attitudes and beliefs, but there are some actions you can take that will be universally appreciated.

Implementing a more flexible return policy, for example, can ease some of the gift-giving anxiety some customers experience. If that could potentially usher in a significant change for your store, you might use a returns management service like Happy Returns or a similar solution to help you streamline that process. Simple free services like gift-wrapping or timed home deliveries are also relatively inexpensive ways to give customers additional incentives to choose you over competitors.

Of course, these initiatives won’t be as effective if nobody knows about them. Now is the ideal time to start spreading the news. Digital marketing should be one of your main focuses in the coming months because it gives you the ability to target audiences and personalize messaging in a more efficient and personalized way than other tactics allow. Plus, it’s where your customers are.

Time isn’t exactly on your side, but you shouldn’t let that stop you. According to Breinify CEO Diane Keng, “‘Just in time’ will be critical this year because the quick adaptation will be the deciding factor of whether you hit business objectives. There won’t be time for proper A/B testing and setting up of manual rules or customer journeys.”

That means you should rely heavily on what you already know about your current customers to inform your marketing and sales strategies. In most cases, you’ll want to avoid going overboard with sales pitches and promotions. Instead, educate customers on what you’re doing to help make their lives easier this year.

Improve inventory management capabilities.

As online sales have surged, many brands are struggling to keep up. Supply chain disruption has plagued nearly every industry, and brands that have suddenly transitioned to a mostly online storefront are working through new challenges related to inventory management.

Pay attention to consumer trends in your market so that you know what prospective customers will be looking for in the coming months. The last thing you want is to order too much of a product that doesn’t sell — especially when cash might already be tight. Generally speaking, you probably want to avoid too much product.

Your goal should be to liquidate as much inventory as possible over the holiday season, which should give you additional flexibility when spring arrives. Be conservative in your demand projections, and make sure the customers who buy from you in the months ahead enjoy an optimal experience.

Customer mindsets and behaviors will likely be slightly different than in past years, and it’s up to retailers to correct their course. Focus on customer experience, convey an empathetic message to customers, and increase the emphasis placed on your inventory management to make it a productive season for you and your customers.

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Rhett Power
Rhett Power is responsible for helping corporate leadership take the actions needed to drive impact and courage in their teams that will improve organizational performance. He is the author of The Entrepreneur’s Book of Actions: Essential Daily Exercises and Habits for Becoming Wealthier, Smarter, and More Successful (McGraw-Hill Education) and co-founder of Wild Creations, an award-winning start-up toy company. After a successful exit from the toy company, Rhett was named the best Small Business Coach in the United States. In 2019 he joined the prestigious Marshall Goldsmith's 100 Coaches and was named the #1 Thought Leader on Entrepreneurship by Thinkers360. He is a Fellow at The Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, a Harvard Medical School affiliate. He travels the globe speaking about entrepreneurship and management alongside the likes of former Gates Foundation CEO Sue Desmond-Hellmann and AOL Founder Steve Case. Rhett Power is an acclaimed author, leader, entrepreneur and an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.