Deck the Digital Halls: How COVID-19 Is Reshaping the Holiday Shopping Season


COVID-19 and its associated social distancing measures have further facilitated the rise of digital commerce, with retailers across the U.S. either building or strengthening their existing online operations this holiday season to stay competitive.

Walmart — long known for its doorbuster sales ahead of the holidays — offers perhaps the surest sign of the times, announcing plans to hire 20,000 workers to staff digital commerce fulfillment centers across the U.S. to support unprecedented online demand.

The retail giant isn’t alone in preparing for a dramatically different season: Businesses of all sizes and stripes must navigate a new normal in which digital commerce vies for supremacy, consumers begin their gift-buying earlier than usual, and innovative outreach tactics take on a more prominent role.

Here’s what retailers can expect and how they can prepare.

The Continued Rise of E-Commerce

A Coresight Research survey conducted before the latest wave of coronavirus infections found that 47% of consumers were avoiding malls and shopping centers to stave off the risk of contracting the coronavirus, a figure that may well rise as new cases continue to increase.

As shoppers jettison brick-and-mortar stores, e-commerce is enjoying big gains. According to a Salesforce forecast, 30% of all retail sales in the U.S. will take place online this holiday season. Deloitte, meanwhile, projects year-over-year growth in e-commerce sales of 25% to 35%, compared to a 14.7% increase from 2018 to 2019.

All signs are pointing to a record-busting holiday season for e-commerce — and last month’s Amazon Prime Day is merely the latest indicator.

Starting Earlier Than Ever

Prime Day itself – not Black Friday or Cyber Monday – is seen by many as marking the informal kickoff of the holiday shopping season for shoppers, with many taking advantage of the event’s later-than-usual date to get a head start on their gift-buying.

Coresight’s survey revealed that a third of respondents planned to do at least some of their holiday shopping on Prime Day, and Salesforce estimates that some $26 billion in global spending that would normally have occurred during Cyber Week will instead have taken place in October this year.

The bottom line? Retailers that wait until the traditional late November benchmarks to stock up on inventory and roll out their holiday promotions will have waited too long. From many shoppers’ perspective, shopping season is already here.

Livestreaming’s Debut on the Global Stage

With virtually every brand gearing up for an influx of e-commerce business, how can they make sure they stand out from the pack — beyond the logistics of bulking up warehouse staff with extra workers, investing in better websites, instituting curbside pickup, and so on?

Finding ways of connecting with customers authentically is always critical, but especially during a shopping season as unusual as this one. One of the most effective ways of doing this is through livestreaming and live selling. Streaming video has been a popular engagement tactic for years in China, where Singles Day 2019 saw livestream ecommerce site TMall alone generate €2.6 billion in sales. But in the era of COVID-19, livestreaming is becoming increasingly prominent outside of China.

Launched in 2019, Amazon Live has grown dramatically during the pandemic, attracting viewers with cooking demonstrations, influencer try-ons, exclusive live experiences, and more, including on Prime Day.

Such experiences provide retailers with an engaging way of reaching customers — providing opportunities for direct interactions through live comments and offering a genuine, unedited, and unfiltered look at the products and faces behind the brands they live and breathe.

To maintain credibility, it’s important that retailers create an experience for their consumers that goes beyond just live selling. Before retailers can reap the benefits of live selling on their social platforms, they must first build up consumer trust. When companies lose sight of what consumers want — and streams become solely about selling — they run the risk of losing the authenticity that attracts consumers to livestreaming in the first place.

To keep viewers coming back, retailers should provide followers with interesting live content, including interviews with industry influencers and experts, Q&As, live company updates (including new product announcements and breaking industry news), AMA’s (Ask me Anything sessions), live chat sessions, live tours of physical stores, warehouses, workshops, and more. The more retailers can do to build authentic trust, the better they’ll perform with consumers — over a third of whom say that brand trust is the leading reason why they select a particular retailer.

Daniel Mayer
Daniel Mayer

While the push towards e-commerce over in-person shopping has been years in the making, COVID-19 has undoubtedly accelerated this shift. For retailers to remain relevant and competitive in this new age of commerce, they need to incorporate new sales tactics into their repertoire. That includes livestreaming and live selling — not only to make immediate sales but to foster meaningful connections with consumers that will ensure greater long-term business stability and prosperity — both during the holiday season, and beyond.

Daniel Mayer is CEO and co-founder of BeLive.

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