To Draw Shoppers This Holiday, Focus on Four Key Areas

As the leaves change color and the temperature drops, anticipation for the holiday season starts, but interesting enough, excitement for the 2014 holiday shopping season is down – way down. Online, the number of consumer conversations about holiday shopping, Black Friday and Cyber Monday have decreased significantly year over year.

Furthermore, within a social media sample of nearly 340,000 diverse users spanning Generation Z through Baby Boomers, fewer consumers in the sample have been talking about holiday shopping and Black Friday this year than during the same time period in 2013. Combine these findings with the fact that foot traffic on Black Friday has actually been declining, and it is evident that this year holiday shopper turnout will likely be even lower than 2013. 

In preparing for this likelihood, here are a few data-driven recommendations to help retailers make the biggest possible impact this year.

Embrace e-commerce, then nurture the customer experience
Retail brands absolutely cannot drag their feet on e-commerce any longer. Mentions of holiday shopping done online versus in-store have increased by 476 percent this year compared to last, while mentions for Black Friday and Cyber Monday have decreased significantly, by 73 percent and 80 percent respectively.

Why are consumers shopping online? Because it's easier, faster and more convenient. When analyzing conversations about online shopping over the past six months, convenience was the No. 1 reason cited. Year over year, the frequency at which convenience was referenced is up 50 percent. Recognizing this, retailers should consider measures such as single sign-on capabilities that use consumers' existing social accounts to login; product reviews, accepting payments from PayPal; offering in-store pickup and returns; and curating trending holiday gifts on the homepage as efforts that can all help increase conversion rates by making the experience less taxing.

Following convenience, free shipping moved past product costs to become the next most referenced attribute analyzed and was found to be much more important than fast shipping. In fact free shipping was referenced 97 percent more often than fast, two-day, or overnight shipping.

Unexpectedly, consumers referred to lower product costs to a lesser degree than both convenience and free shipping. This is not to say that product prices online are not nearly as important as convenience, as there seems to be a general expectation of competitively low prices that perhaps is not explicitly stated. Still, it does serve to highlight how much more often consumers talk about easier online experiences and free shipping as major factors in their purchasing decisions. These characteristics are no longer differentiators; they are requirements for parity.

Start early, but be careful to avoid "Black Friday Burnout"
In an analysis of 50,162 adults online, there were noticeable changes in perceptions of Black Friday from 2012 to 2013. Negative sentiment increased from 31 percent to 37 percent, statements indicating plans to purchase fell from 6.2 percent to 3.6 percent, and comments about making purchases declined from 4.7 percent to 2.1 percent. In 2014, we're already seeing the repercussions of this with 57 percent fewer mentions of Black Friday this year as compared to 2013.

On the bright side, consumers who have been talking about Black Friday and Cyber Monday started showing interest much earlier this year. Mentions during July about Black Friday made up 11 percent of the total conversation volume from July to October in 2013. This year, that number has more than tripled to 36 percent.

This follows a trend that was first recognized in 2012. From 2012 through 2013, fall has been the season when consumers talk most about retailers. With consumers talking even earlier this year, retailers must begin promoting holiday shopping right away. Unfortunately, it will not be as easy as just bombarding consumers with ads featuring holiday deals. Retailers will have to overcome deep disillusionment with Black Friday, much of which stemmed from over-promotion in the past.

Adjust messaging to resonate with men
Collective interest in Black Friday and Cyber Monday may be down, but this year there is a surprisingly higher percentage of men talking about the sales events than in previous years.  This year men have generated 61 percent of all Black Friday conversations, up 5 percent from 2013, and 57 percent of Cyber Monday conversations, up 11 percent from 2013.

Beyond this, men are not only comprising a greater share of the conversation, but they are also talking about buying in greater frequency. Comments about making purchases have risen from 6 percent of all posts in 2013 to 7 percent in 2014 for Black Friday, and 8 percent in 2013 to 15 percent in 2014 for Cyber Monday.

Where did the change come from? The spike in male participation this year is coming primarily from more discussions about technology-related products, particularly those related to video gaming. One of the most telling revelations from the data is the degree to which purchase indicators have increased for Cyber Monday compared to Black Friday. The two-fold increase for Cyber Monday yet paltry increase for Black Friday highlights the degree to which shopping preferences have shifted from in-store to online, especially for men.

Realize the importance of Millennial consumers
Millennials are a hot topic for marketers, and for good reason. This year the share of the voice for both male and female Millennials within holiday shopping conversations significantly increased. In 2013, female Millennials accounted for 24 percent of the conversation among women, and this year that number has increased to 40 percent. For male Millennials the increase has been even more drastic, jumping from 16 percent to 50 percent.

Quite opposite to the general population, Millennial conversations about holiday shopping were down to a far greater degree, with 67 percent fewer mentions in 2014 compared to 2013. However, conversations about Black Friday and Cyber Monday did not experience near the degree of drop in mentions with Millennials as with the general population. While mentions declined overall by 80 percent from 2013 to 2014 for Cyber Monday, with Millennials this decrease was only 16 percent.

In the face of declining interest in Black Friday within the general population and more overall focus in online shopping, Millennials just might be the best group to target for in-store promotions.

Bringing it all together
Set your brand up to be in the best position possible this season. Ensure that your e-commerce site offers an optimal experience and delivers on the measures online retailers are rated on. Begin your touchpoints early but avoid overly aggressive campaigns that burn out your target consumers. Develop and test campaigns designed to better resonate with men. Focus on Millennials for your in-store promotion efforts.

Rion Martin is marketing director at Infegy and specializes in helping brands derive game-changing insights and analysis using Infegy's social media intelligence tools. In this role, he is primarily responsible for developing and maintaining relationships with ad agencies, market researchers and consumer insight teams. He also curates the Infegy blog and keeps his finger on the pulse of social-media trends and hot topics – from Taco Bell’s new breakfast menu to the Emmy Awards.

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