How Marketers Should Prepare for an Abnormal Holiday Season

Marketers overuse the word “unique,” but the adjective actually applies to this year’s holiday season. Consumer-facing brands and retailers have not faced such an adverse economic environment for more than a decade, and they have never grappled with a Q4 in which driving customers to their stores came with daily, life-or-death stakes.

I spoke to Michele Marzan, chief strategy officer at MainAd, about these holidays’ unprecedented challenges and unexpected opportunities.

What are the most significant challenges consumer brands face heading into this year’s abnormal holidays?

In the pre-pandemic world, 38% of Christmas shopping is usually complete before Black Friday. In the world of Covid-19, everything has escalated. People — today’s consumers — are feeling uneasy. They’re planning earlier, they’re shopping smarter; the CDC even recently implemented a new holiday guidebook, forcing many to start to think through how their celebrations might change this year to reflect new safety protocols. 

Brands must keep all of this top of mind as they start to implement their holiday shopping campaigns. Brands today have to be more customer-led than ever before. They must research and understand how consumer sentiments are changing and pivot their marketing strategies accordingly.

How are they accounting for new safety guidelines in their stores? How are they pivoting their online strategies to target a wider audience? How are they revising pre-planned content to accurately reflect and represent how their customers may be feeling? There are a lot of questions for brands to consider in the weeks ahead. This can still be a successful holiday shopping experience for both brands and consumers, but it is rightfully going to require some innovative thinking and legwork.

How are brands preparing differently this year than in normal years?

We see three major trends emerging across brand marketers as they prepare to embrace this unorthodox holiday shopping season.

Brand marketers are becoming more insight-led, working to ensure that they understand shifting consumer sentiments. Brands are becoming more data-driven and more easily embracing an agile approach to business, pivoting in strategy where necessary based on captured data trends. Lastly, brand marketers are better prioritizing privacy to help ensure that, in their more data-driven approach, they are still working to build customer trust and foster brand loyalty.

What should marketers specifically be doing to prepare for the holidays?

According to recent research out of McKinsey & Company, retail transactions have dropped by a whopping 20 to 50%. These movements are accompanied by diminished foot traffic in retail outlets and an increased reliance on online shopping. 

While it seems to be a known industry fact that online retail has become the default purchasing vehicle for many consumers during lockdown, it is important to note that the pandemic has also made consumers more fluid about where they buy online. In fact, 73% of consumers describe themselves as channel-agnostic, up 65% from pre-pandemic times

With that, marketers need to be audience-driven, rather than focusing on specific channels. Focus on customers and what they’re looking for, rather than where they may find your ad. 

Are you expecting a drastic shift toward e-commerce? Will that endure in future years as Covid restrictions go away?

Our research shows that by 2024, 53% of retail revenue will go to retailers that have a digital offering as part of their business models. If stricter lockdown measures are extended or reinstated as the pandemic continues, this could stretch to 56% as consumers continue to favor shopping online versus in-store. In that regard, we definitely see the dramatic shift.

As to whether or not it will endure in future years is hard to gauge. We certainly believe that online shopping will continue to be a prevalent trend; however, does that mean that in-store retail will completely die out? Unlikely. In-store shopping will, however, need to continue to innovate to keep up with the rapid pace of e-commerce expansion.

The mark of the pandemic will be a lasting one for many members of society. Stores will need to look hard at how to reinvent their in-store experiences to fit new consumer sentiments — perhaps this is through new safety measures or a more personalized feel to the store layout. Only time will tell as we all continue to navigate these uncharted waters together.

The interview was edited for clarity and length.

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Joe Zappa is the Managing Editor of Street Fight. He joined Street Fight as a contributing writer in 2015, has compiled the daily newsletter since 2016, and has spearheaded the newsroom's editorial operations since 2018. Shoot him an email at jzappa@streetfightmag.com.