New Year, Same Challenge: Content is the Key to Another Digital Holiday Season for Retailers

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The sound of holiday bells, the feel of a bustling marketplace, the scent of pine wafting through local shops … will most likely remain on hold for 2021. 

With the Delta variant bringing a second unwelcome wave of apprehension and disruption, the vision we all looked forward to a year ago — the return to a normal holiday season — is dissipating before our eyes. Online shopping will be the main go-to again this time around, with businesses and consumers facing many familiar, and a few unfamiliar, factors this year. 

As smart retailers plan for the 2021 season, the focus needs to be on lessons learned from the rapid digital transformation of 2020: namely, how to create a smooth online shopping experience for consumers who may be hesitant or even skittish about the change. At the same time, businesses must capitalize on opportunities in the areas of customer communication and online product presentation; done well, both can greatly improve the experience of a digitally multi-tasking public. 

Stretched income, rising prices, short supplies

The National Retail Foundation (NRF) reported that total U.S. holiday sales grew 8.3% last year over 2019, which was more than double the average of the previous five years. During the November-December time frame, sales reportedly totaled $789.4 billion, a number that includes online and other non-stores sales, which were up 23.9% to $209 billion. 

While 2021 may be similar in terms of online behavior, the numbers may tell a different story. For American consumers, the 2020 holiday season was made a bit brighter through federal stimulus checks, a factor some experts believe contributed to the 8.3% sales jump. Although a welcomed decrease in unemployment has offered a glimpse of relief this year, the absence of a stimulus plan may impact spending. 

In addition, the current retail recovery may be hampered by price increases driven by inflation rates which have crept up over the last several months, reaching levels not seen since the U.S. financial crisis of 2008. The reason? A continually compromised supply chain that many retailers predict will take until 2022 to fully recover from the pandemic.

Bah humbug? Not just yet.

There are three ways retailers can use the power of online content to set themselves up for success and their customers up for a positive, immersive shopping experience. 

Communicate early and clearly 

With global supply chain issues come product shortages and delivery delays, two things that holiday shoppers (and retailers) fear the most. Retailers can help consumers get ahead of the race by prepping early with clear messaging, transparent policies, and online content that makes it as easy, economical, and experiential to shop online in October as it used to be in-store on Black Friday. 

A well-written product category page, for example, is more likely to be indexed in search results, where many shoppers start. At the end of the purchase journey, optimizing the product detail page will ensure the shopper is provided with the product information they need to quickly make an informed purchase decision — a win-win as the buyer makes their purchase and the retailer checks off a successful conversion. 

Make it easy 

In envisioning a post-pandemic holiday season, many of us pictured the human interaction inherent in the shopping experience. The sales clerk helping us find what we need, the cashier reminding us of a special offer; still on hold, these elements need to be replicated online. 

At the same time, the rush of the holiday season keeps the same pace every year, with time-starved shoppers wondering how they will ever get it all done. This is where merchandise categories and other performance content can be utilized to virtually walk a consumer through the purchase journey in a way that respects their bandwidth. 

When product descriptions are on point, category overviews are well formulated and merchandise guides are developed with a customer view in mind, each shopper can enjoy a personalized experience from start to finish, leading to a more confident purchase.

Meet — or better yet, surpass — expectations 

Increasingly empowered by their 2020 experience, today’s online shoppers continue to grow in their ability to utilize multiple devices to accomplish everyday tasks. According to one study, mobile retail in the U.S. grew 36% in 2020, with 70% of consumers reporting that they used their phone to shop online during Cyber Week, the week after Thanksgiving. 

Shoppers are simply savvier than they were last year, which means retailers need to match that upskill with digital seamlessness, astute brand information, and transparent communication. This is true across channels as well, where strategic, audience-specific messaging must be included to match the agility of today’s sharper digital consumer. 

Above all, clear content must guide consumers throughout their online experience, crafted for relevance at each touchpoint along the purchase journey. 

It may be another year before holiday shoppers can experience the joy of emerging from their favorite boutique laden with colorful shopping bags. But by using lessons learned in 2020, communicating with consumers, and putting the customer experience first, retailers can create the sort of digital immersion shoppers are looking to replicate, while fortifying brand loyalty in the process.

Ed Bussey is Chief Solutions Officer at Jellyfish.