The 2018 holiday shopping season is upon us. Time to pull out all the stops and reap the rewards of the busiest time of the year.
But where to start? Should you concentrate on in-store purchases? Or beef up your online presence?
In order to thrive this holiday shopping season, focusing on both in-store and online forms of sales could be the key to brisk business.
"The investments retailers have been making in tying together the online and in-store shopping experiences are starting to pay off," says Bill Friend, managing director and vice president of North America at Fluent Commerce, a retail management company focused on omnichannel services.
—Jason Oxman, CEO, Electronic Transactions Association
"Shoppers are more likely to shop in store when they're researching bulky items or when they need to look, feel, open or participate with the merchandise in any way," says Friend. "On the other hand, there is a comfort and convenience to online shopping, and it works well to wrangle in last-minute shoppers during the holiday season."
Consider the following anticipated holiday shopping season trends and how your company can prepare and capitalize on these trends.
In-Store Purchases to Increase This Holiday Shopping Season
Despite predictions to the contrary, in-store retail is alive and well this holiday shopping season.
A 2018 In-Store Holiday Shopping survey of 1,200 U.S. consumers in August found that 88 percent of shoppers intend to shop in physical stores this holiday season.
The survey, completed by Natural Insight, a cloud-based retail execution and workforce management platform, also discovered some surprising shopper demographics.
Younger generations are more likely to make a trip to a brick-and-mortar store this year, with 88 percent of 18-29 years olds reporting that they will shop in stores this holiday shopping season—an 8 percentage point increase from 2017, according to the survey. (Ninety-two percent of 30 to 44 years olds report they plan to shop in-store this season.)
In addition, the study found that 47 percent of holiday shopping will happen before December.
"Some consumers need to see or try on a product for themselves before they purchase," says Jason Oxman, CEO of the Electronic Transactions Association, a trade association for the payments industry. "During the holiday shopping season, brick-and-mortar stores offer consumers the benefit of physically interacting with products they want to purchase."
People want to know exactly what they're buying, adds Celeste Lee, a retail and consumer expert and founder of the consulting company Tenth Muse Consulting.
"Does that rose gold diamond initial pendant have the right weight, is the chain refined and is that the right shade of rose gold for her skin tone?" Lee says.
Buying American or local is another reason for the focus on brick-and-mortar retail, believes Joe Palumbo, founder and inventor of Fiore Trees, metal flower-basket trees that are hand-forged.
"Physical stores are the best place to sell local," Palumbo says.
Immersive Shopping Experiences Expected
Today's shoppers are gravitating to physical stores because they're seeking "experiences," rather than just simple transactions, believes David Westendorf, CEO of slim eyewear purveyor ThinOptics.
"Many stores are stepping up and providing more immersive in-store shopping experiences, driving more traffic to their brick-and-mortar locations," Westendorf says.
Margarita Poluyko, co-CEO with Igor Poluyko of bedding brand Mellanni Fine Linens, agrees.
"Brick-and-mortar was never going to completely disappear," Poluyko says. "However, over the past decade leaders in the industry have shifted from existing as casual shopping locations to memorable and unique experiences."
The takeaway this holiday shopping season is the importance of engaging the consumers' senses and ensuring more personalized and tailored services.
"Since the ability to see, touch and try out products before buying is one of the most popular reasons people shop in stores, encouraging customers to come and experience your products will get consumers, especially millennials, off their mobile devices and into your store," says Stefan Midford, president and CEO of Natural Insight, which conducted the 2018 In-Store Holiday Shopping survey.
Midford suggests including interactive and demonstrative displays in stores.
"'Try me' products, live demonstrations and other interactive merchandising techniques are great ways to showcase popular gift items in stores," he says. “Also provide gift inspiration ideas."
Online Purchasing Will Continue to Climb
Online sales are still rising, and they show no signs of abating.
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, "the second quarter 2018 e-commerce estimate increased 15.2 percent from the second quarter of 2017, while total retail sales increased 5.7 percent in the same period."
"Online shopping is an integral part of the holiday shopping season, because it offers consumers an easy way to access the gifts they want, shop and compare prices and find the best deals from the comfort of their homes," says Oxman.
He suggests merchants capitalize on all upcoming holidays.
"In addition to Black Friday and Cyber Monday," Oxman says, "try Veteran's Day, Small Business Saturday and Thanksgiving."
In order to succeed with online sales, it's important to lower perceived risk to the consumer, believes Oxman.
"To gain an online advantage, provide an exceptionally easy returns policy, pre-labeled return packages or liberal lifetime guarantees."
Attention to shipping speed and cost is also critical, adds Marc Gorlin, founder and CEO of Roadie, an on-the-way delivery service.
"Most retailers are looking beyond costly traditional delivery services to meet the needs of their customers and are considering more collaborative models, including crowdsourcing deliveries," he says.
This holiday shopping season, Gorlin believes it's critical to find flexible and convenient delivery options—especially during peak holiday times.
"Customers are willing to pay premiums for instant or same-day delivery," says Gorlin. "Not only will a flexible delivery option drive e-commerce sales, but customers get a stronger, brand-driven experience. For retailers, there's no better present than that."
Omnichannel Sales the Wave of the Future
An omnichannel sales approach includes multiple channels that provide customers with an integrated customer experience. This includes being able to access products online from a desktop, mobile phone or brick-and-mortar location.
And all of these platforms work together seamlessly.
"The best positioned merchants this holiday shopping season will no longer just focus on accepting cash, coins and cards at a cash register," says Oxman. "Having a strategy to accept the latest in payments technology—whether its mobile order ahead, e-commerce, mobile payments, checkout solutions, contactless payments—gives consumers as many channels and opportunities to engage with a merchant as possible."
It's also important to remember that mobile buying activity is an integral part of the online buying experience, believes Westendorf.
"Consumers are evolving to 'window shop' on their mobile phones, while making actual online purchases later on their desktops," he says. "This holiday shopping season, it's a good idea for online merchants to embrace this by optimizing mobile shopping and establishing an elegant handoff when consumers log back in on their desktop computers."
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