Preparing For an Unpredictable Holiday Retail Season


Forgive me for stating the obvious, but this holiday shopping season is going to be unlike any we’ve ever seen. Even if Covid-19 numbers are better by the holidays, merchants don’t have the luxury of waiting until Thanksgiving to determine their holiday strategy and what shopper behavior is likely to be. They need to make decisions now.

Unfortunately, between the pandemic, the election and economic turmoil, predicting consumer behavior for the holidays is like reading tea leaves in a vat of motor oil. Those who remain employed may operate as they usually would or spend more to make up for buying less in the spring and summer. Others will scale back on spending.

There is one safe bet: Shoppers will continue to prefer buying online to avoid physical stores as much as possible. With that in mind, e-commerce merchants need to start preparing now for whatever happens through the rest of the year.


One of the biggest challenges during the pandemic has been product availability. With some factories closed or operating at reduced capacity, it has been difficult to source inventory, and with consumer behavior up in the air, it’s difficult to know how much inventory to order. Do you take a conservative approach and produce less even if it means losing revenue? Or do you produce as much as possible and risk getting stuck with excess inventory?

The answers to these questions will vary from merchant to merchant based on risk tolerance, the strength of their balance sheets, knowledge of how their customers behave and other variables, but now is the time to talk to your manufacturers to ensure they are prepared and able to adjust to changing circumstances.

Shipping and Returns

Shippers have already added workers to meet the e-commerce boom, and demand will increase through the holidays. Thanks to Amazon, shoppers expect fast, free shipping, and they will avoid merchants for bad shipping experiences. Retailers need to work with their shipping partners now to understand when orders will need to be placed to be delivered in time.

It also stands to reason that with more items bought sight unseen online, there will be more problems with clothes that are the wrong size or other issues with unmet expectations and therefore more returns. Merchants need to be clear about their return policies so consumers can make informed buying decisions. Apparel merchants should also expect shoppers to buy multiple sizes with the intention of returning ones that don’t fit. They’ll need to think about how quickly they can restock those items, possibly taking into account additional sterilization requirements.

Meaningful Marketing

Cyber Monday promotions will be stretched over several weeks this year, and stores will be heavy on deals in general. That means consumers will be bombarded with ads via email, Facebook and every other online and offline channel. Merchants should invest in segmentation and personalization to get the right offers to the right people at the right time. They’ll need to recalculate promotional schedules to reflect the longer shopping season, and they’ll need to find the right messages to stand out from the crowd.

Preparing for the unpredictable is no easy task. This holiday season is going to be especially challenging for merchants. Circumstances will change in real time. The merchants who get their fundamental systems ready now and can adjust quickly will be the ones who reap the most rewards come holiday.

Meghan Stabler is VP global marketing and communications of BigCommerce.

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