I imagine everyone was heartened by the news a vaccine is on the horizon. But it’s clear we still need to be cautious and follow the restrictions and continue operating in emergency mode. Reading between the lines, it remains to be seen if lockdown will really lift on the 2nd December. ‘Expect the unexpected’ is therefore the motto for now.
It’s evident that retailers are among those closely following this mantra. Criticised in the past for bringing out Christmas goods too early, this year it seems the public is receptive. Christmas trees can already be seen through windows in our neighbourhood and recent research by M&S found that Christmas-related searches had increased on its website by 80%.
We are now well into the ‘Golden Quarter’ for retail when most will deliver the majority of their annual sales and profit. Without a strong Christmas we will see challenging retail outlooks in the new year. It’s therefore justifiable to meet an unusual customer demand for an early Christmas.
The sense of needing something to look forward to in a lockdown, and a hesitation to queue outside a shop in the cold or rain or be in a crowded place when it lifts will drive people online. Consumer confidence figures and redundancy numbers also indicate a large number of people will be budgeting more this year, buying special long-life foods and treats to get ahead, and gifts for friends that can be delivered for them.
This Christmas will be a true test of ‘omni-channel’. However, I believe it will be the retailers that still try and achieve a feel good Christmas experience for their customers that will win more than any other. Shopping is a sombre transactional affair right now and adding magic and sparkle really is so important.
So how do you translate the normal Christmas retail atmosphere into an online setting? Virtual Santas, Zoom gift elves, virtual tours of the shop floor, the use of video and music all have a role.
Of course, it’s important to accept that footfall will be way down on normal levels and for the customers who do brave it after lockdown there should be the reward of receiving a special Christmas experience. From carol singing, mulled wine and chestnuts to stunning lights, it’s the retailers who deliver this that will be on the good list.
In some ways that’s the easy bit. The biggest challenge will undoubtedly be planning stock and resources around the lockdown and into tiered levels again. It’s why I think we’ll see more retailers centralise their stock and use online, and click and collect (or when we can, instore ordering) to manage the risks.
Helping customers get what they want in a timely way will help differentiate the brands that do well and those that struggle. Much of this will be about supply chain planning and technology, staff training and great communication so people know what to expect and receive a consistent and positive experience.
In some ways the rules haven’t changed – deliver the best experience, a great line up of products (not necessarily exhaustive but perhaps original), competitive pricing and easy ordering and delivery models. It will rely on going the extra mile with supply chains that are clockwork and employees who are super engaged in the plan, more options to pay, extra resource to provide help and support, flexible delivery options and longer return periods.
It won’t be easy, but it is possible if you understand your customer, can anticipate their needs and find ways to deliver the extra mile.
Get it right and it can be a case of ‘winner, winner, turkey dinner’.