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2020 holiday retail season guide: key dates and top tips to maximize your sales

2020 has been a challenging year for retailers and the Holiday Season will be a critical period to recoup lost income. The year has also had an unprecedented impact on people’s buying habits so we can expect a Holiday Shopping Season unlike any other. While the dates in the calendar may be familiar, there are a whole host of opportunities for businesses looking to tap into new audiences and new spending patterns.

In a normal year the holiday shopping season can account for as much as 40% of annual sales for some businesses so it’s never too early to start planning. Research suggests that over a fifth of shoppers start their holiday shopping as early as July. To seize the ecommerce opportunity of 2020, businesses must have a clear plan for these crucial months with a heightened focus on their online initiatives.

In 2019, UK retail sales during the holiday season almost reached £100 billion and over 28% of that spending was online. In 2020, 85% of retailers expect online sales will be higher still this year and over half of brands and retailers are investing in the ecommerce side of their business as a result. Research recently published by Google found that over 70% of UK shoppers how plan to shop this season said they will shop online more for the holidays than they did previously, and a similar number said they would browse online instead of instore.  Similarly in the US, online sales had accelerated to be 70% up year on year, with the holiday season expected to accelerate this growth even further.

This means, more of your customers than ever are ready to shop online, so a digital shopping experience is essential for businesses to reach a growing proportion of their audience. But for businesses to have a successful Holiday Shopping Season requires much more. Gaining visibility during the busiest time of the year means competing for your customer’s scarce attention. Understanding and meeting each shopper’s individual wants and needs is key to communicating the right message at the right time.

Planning for a successful 2020 Holiday Shopping Season begins with a calendar of key events. This guide provides details on the major dates over the coming months and shares top tips on how your business can best seize the opportunities they offer.

Amazon Early Black Friday - (rumoured to begin) October 26th
Amazon is planning to begin their Black Friday deals a full month early this year. Different products will be on special offer each week which means Amazon will effectively be running sales events for an entire two months. These deals will be available to all customers regardless of whether they have Prime membership. However, for those who are full members of the scheme, Amazon Prime Day is expected to be announced for the first week of October too, offering a range of deals and discounts of a wide range of products. Last year’s Prime Day deals lasted 48 hours so we can expect something similar for 2020. In previous years consumer electronics and laptops have been particularly popular items.

Top Tip: Inventory visibility across all channels and locations is essential. Make sure point-of-sale, order management and warehousing data is coordinated to ensure you are not overstocked or out-of-stock throughout this crucial period.

Halloween - October 31st
The Holidays Shopping Season seems to begin earlier each year and 2020 is certain to be no exception. With the nights drawing in and a brisk, wintery chill to the evening, Halloween has increasingly become the unofficial start of a commercial bonanza. Halloween itself has become more popular outside the US in recent years, and is a great opportunity for businesses, especially those selling food and drink, fancy dress or seasonal decorations. October sees a 4.5% increase in gift shopping over a typical month. It also sees an increase in customer question submissions so ensure you respond to queries and reviews to convert these interactions into sales. Using chatbots can be a great idea.

Top Tip: Make sure your promotional plans are prepped and ready to get off to a flying start with email newsletters, social media campaigns, blog posts and paid ads. Get your calls-to-action right and always keep in mind the buyer’s journey to best cater to their needs.

Singles' Day - November 11th
National festivities have quickly become international business opportunities as both shoppers and shopper habits move rapidly across borders. Singles’ Day started as an unofficial holiday for bachelors at China’s Nanjing University in 1993 but has grown exponentially since. E-commerce giant Alibaba recorded sales of more than $38 billion in 2019, which its founder Jack Ma declared ‘a disappointment’! The holiday is catching on globally too. Last year the UK saw a 13% increase in Singles' Day sales to £1.3 billion.

Personal electronics and fashion items are particularly popular promotions. Companies offer big discounts over the 24-hour period, generating hype and excitement around catch-it-while-you-can bargains. COVID-19 has lowered customer sentiment significantly and this will boost the number of bargain hunters this year.

Top Tip: Make sure you optimize for mobile. This is the device of choice for more and more shoppers so make sure your website provides the speed, navigation and checkout experience your customers expect. Minimize the number of pages and form fields in the purchase process.

Thanksgiving Day (USA) - November 26th
One of the year’s main holidays in the US, Thanksgiving Day is a great opportunity for businesses, especially food and drink items and seasonal decorations. With most brick-and-mortar stores closed, e-commerce has a big advantage. In fact, Thanksgiving Day is the second largest online sales day in the US after Cyber Monday, with digital sales of $4 billion last year.

Top Tip: As customers begin to focus on the Festive Season in earnest, create helpful gift-guides and provide engaging, valuable content to your readers. Research shows that by the end of the Thanksgiving weekend 68% of customers have started their holiday shopping so there’s not a moment to lose.

Black Friday - November 27th
A key date in any seller’s calendar, Black Friday has gone from strength to strength in recent years. $7.4 billion was spent in the US in 2019. Household appliances, TVs, toys and sporting goods are among the most popular categories. Despite – or perhaps because of – the media attention on shoppers surging into stores, more and more Black Friday sales are online. That is particularly likely to be true this year. To get your promotional messages to stand out amid the noise, businesses should be launching their campaigns roughly three weeks before the Thanksgiving weekend and building momentum.

Top Tip: Make sure you leverage SMS. 98% of text messages are read within two minutes with a 36% click through rate and 45% conversion rate. This is a fantastic way to engage your audience so drive new SMS subscriptions with your other social media and email activities.

Small Business Saturday USA - November 28th 
Now in its tenth year in the US, Small Business Saturday gives smaller sellers extra visibility during one of the busiest shopping periods of the year. The holiday has been enthusiastically adopted in other countries too although dates vary – In the UK the holiday is on the December 5th (see below). This holiday is particularly important for smaller speciality and craft businesses.

All types of small independent businesses take part and the community focus of the holiday means promotions should target local audiences and build on their loyal, local following. Younger shoppers often particularly value unique and limited-edition items, so this is a great opportunity to target this demographic.

Top Tip: When deploying Email and SMS campaigns give personalized product recommendations, suggest cross-sells or upsells, promote sister brands and encourage your customers to join loyalty and marketing programmes.

Cyber Monday - 30th November
Rounding off the Thanksgiving Weekend, Cyber Monday sees businesses offering online deals. It is one of the biggest Internet shopping days of the year and savvy shoppers keep a keen eye out for discount codes and social media announcements in the hunt for a bargain. Last year saw more than $9 billion in sales in the US, about 33% of which were from people’s smartphones. Toys and games are a particularly popular category as people shop for Christmas presents.

Top Tip: Use social media to promote your offers and coupon codes, and drive people back to your site. The peak shopping times traditionally coincide with the 8.30am and 5pm rush hours as commuters turn to their phones. These peaks will still be important, even with greater remote working this year.

Small Business Saturday UK - December 5th 
Official figures showed that over 17 million shoppers across the UK were out in their local communities for Small Business Saturday in 2019, supporting the country’s 5.8 million firms. More and more businesses are taking part, with 200,000 joining last year alone.

Top Tip: In-store pick-up and returns have become increasingly popular in recent years and Covid-19 restrictions are likely to boost this further. This is especially important for customers living within easy reach of your stores so make sure you provide this option to customers and it will reduce lost sales too.

Hanukkah - December 10-18th 
The Jewish festival of light last for several days and gifts are a part of the festivities. Business selling food and drink can find an opportunity, but products must comply with religious restrictions so retailers unfamiliar with Hanukkah promotions should do their research. Many Jewish parents give their children gifts during the holiday, but gift giving to adults is not the norm so companies should avoid such specific promotions.

Top Tip: Optimize your customer segmentation to provide more granular detail in your communications. Target each audience segment with carefully tailored messages which will resonate with their specific needs and wants.

Free Shipping Day (USA) - December 14th 
Primarily a US initiative but growing internationally year by year, Free Shipping Day sees the participation of both large and small retailers. The day offers free shipping for purchases and a guarantee that the item will arrive by Christmas Eve. The motivation for customers, in addition to saving on postal costs, is finishing that last-minute shopping and avoiding the crowds, so promotions should target inspirational gift ideas and convenience as well as savings.

Top Tip: Throughout the holiday season, but particularly this close to Christmas, fulfillment is key. If this is a concern, consider partnering with a logistics specialist. This may save you a great deal of time and money and, above all, ensure your customer’s purchase arrives on time.

Super Saturday - December 19th 
Also known as Panic Saturday, this is the last Saturday before Christmas. Foot traffic in the UK on Super Saturday fell by over 10% last year. This suggests perhaps that shoppers are increasingly doing their holiday shopping early and that rapid delivery makes online ordering an attractive option even a few days before Christmas Eve itself.

Top Tip: Online promotions for those last-minute purchases need to reassure the customer that they will receive their item promptly.

Kwanzaa - December 26th
The annual celebration of African American and Pan African culture runs from December 26th to January 1st. The holiday continues to grow in popularity in the US and beyond and Kwanzaa gifts are an additional opportunity for businesses, particularly those selling educational toys for children.

Boxing Day & January Sales - December 26th (Starts online on December 25th)
The post-Christmas discounts start online on the 25th itself so your promotions and activities need to be meticulously planned well in advance. It’s important for your website and social media platforms to be ready for shoppers looking to grab a bargain straight away. Homewares, kitchen appliances, consumer electronics and fashion are particularly popular categories. New Year’s Eve marks the end of the year but not quite the end of the Holiday Shopping Season. This is a great opportunity to promote new season stock and put your 2021 programme of activities into action.

Top Tip: Harness the power of product reviews – these are a powerful way to inform and reassure other potential customers. Encourage the customer to leave a review with a reminder 4 or 5 days after purchase. Consider letting people upload images or video and not just leave a star rating.

National Returns Day - January 2nd 
This is traditionally regarded as the peak day to return unwanted gifts, but the returns process actually starts on December 26th and represents an opportunity for higher sales. There are customers who will simply want a refund, but others will be happy with an exchange or even an upsell. This is the moment to demonstrate your excellent customer service and your ability to meet each shopper’s needs. In the process you can turn a returned item into a returning customer.

Top Tip: Make sure your refund policy is transparent and clear to your customers. Consider offering free return shipping and integrate your store credit system as an alternative to refunds. Above all, make sure you go that extra mile to provide excellent service to dissatisfied customers, listen to their frustrations and tackle persistent problems.

Plan Now for Holiday Season Success
Get planning as soon as possible to ensure a successful Holiday Shopping Season. These months are more important than ever to strengthen customer relationships through providing an excellent customer experience, and drive sales and maximise profits with the right stock selection and inventory management. This holiday season will be different in many ways but the disruption we all face also brings opportunities and the advantage will belong to those who adapt and prepare.

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Topics: Amazon, eCommerce Trends, Business Growth, Black Friday, Holiday season