By multiple measures, online is surpassing in-store as the growth driver for the 2017 holiday season — and Amazon is leading the way. With the online giant poised to make even greater gains in 2018, merchants must act now to heighten and promote their unique advantages.
Once again, online shopping is powering retail growth during the holiday season. eCommerce revenues represented 57.6% of the total retail sales growth for the period from Black Friday through Cyber Monday, and accounted for one in five dollars spent overall, according to Internet Retailer. Cyber Monday alone brought in close to $6.6 billion in online revenues, making it the largest eCommerce sales day to date.
Meanwhile, foot traffic retail outlets decreased by just under a percentage point on Black Friday compared with the prior year, according to ShopperTrak, and Internet Retailer estimates in-store sales growth of around 2.5% — healthy, but nowhere near the rocketing increase in online activity.
The online growth is driven by consumers who increasingly express a preference for online shopping during the holidays. Fully 50% of participants in Deloitte’s pre-season survey said they favored going online for gifts, while participants in Kibo’s holiday survey named convenience, the lack of crowds, competitive prices, and wide selection as the top reasons they preferred shopping online.
The single brand benefiting most from this changing sentiment is, not surprisingly, Amazon.com. Amazon generated more than 56% of online shopping sales over the Thanksgiving-to-Cyber-Monday period now dubbed The Cyber Five, according to Internet Retailer. Hitwise reported that on Cyber Monday itself, some 60% of all online transactions were conducted on Amazon.
As Amazon’s juggernaut plows through the season, there’s a ripple effect for merchants in the form of rising shopper expectations. Amazon’s Prime service, which offers free two-day shipping to its 90 million members (that’s a quarter of the U.S. population), now sets the standard for delivery that’s both free and fast. The site’s more than 300 million SKUs prompt shoppers to expect that they’ll be able to find “long-tail” rarities online.
And, of course, Amazon’s practice of undercutting the competition on product pricing has led shoppers to expect online deals. Indeed, relevant discounts topped the list of expectations for eCommerce sites in the Kibo holiday survey, with 70% of respondents saying they expected to see them when shopping online.
But for many small- and mid-sized merchants, a race to the bottom when it comes to pricing is dangerous to start, as are perennial free shipping offers that erode margins. Instead, in order to take advantage of secret Amazon’s shortcomings, merchants must maintain and grow their businesses by doubling down on their unique assets, demonstrating worth through relevance and creating a valuable experience that spans touchpoints.
In 2018, merchants should prioritize:
BOPIS. Buy online, pickup in-store, aka BOPIS, is a retailer’s magic bullet when it comes to fast, convenient, and free online order fulfillment. In order to meet and exceed expectations, however, merchants must execute flawlessly, which means deployment and exhaustive testing of:
- Real-time inventory visibility. More than one in two shoppers in Kibo’s holiday survey said they use online inventory information to justify a trip to the store, so that information must be accurate, especially during peak seasons when store stock is in rapid flux. Flagging items that are almost gone in stores can give shoppers extra motivation to commit to purchasing online before jumping in the car.
- Speedy site-to-store fulfillment. Shoppers expect BOPIS to beat home-delivery orders when it comes to speed, with more than 80% saying they their items should be ready for pickup within 24 hours and 59% expecting pickup within 4 hours, according to a BOPIS study by Bell & Howell. Merchants should meet this expectation wherever possible and promote it, flagging items available for one- or two-hour pickup on the product detail page as well as highlighting the overall speed of BOPIS service.
- Seamless and efficient pickup execution. Merchants should invest heavily in testing post-purchase transactional messaging and in-store pickup processes to ensure BOPIS delivers on its promise. Notification messages should clearly spell out next steps for pickup, store signage should prominently point the way to pickup desks, and the counters should be adequately staffed to reduce wait times. While merchants may be tempted to place pickup counters at the back of stores in the hopes of encouraging additional purchases, delivering on the expectation of speedy pickup can foster longer-term loyalty. In fact, to make the process more efficient, merchants should even consider self-service lockers, which are rapidly being deployed for Amazon in Whole Foods locations, and holiday curbside service for BOPIS orders.
Real-time personalization. Creating valuable brand experiences means delivering relevance in the moment, from showcasing unique finds that match shoppers’ holiday gift lists to offering proactive suggestions based on past orders. Shoppers now expect merchants to be able take into account their past interactions with the brand when it comes to site offers and content, and while personalization has been a buzzword for years, the latest real-time individualization tools can help merchants realize the goal of providing one-to-one shopping experiences. To deliver on the promise of personalization, merchants should employ:
- Explicit as well as implicit personalization tools. While much is made of technologies that churn through behind-the-scenes big data to power product recommendations, merchants can also deploy features that ask shoppers to volunteer information outright. By taking a page from concierge-style startups like StitchFix and Trunk Club, merchants can ask shoppers to create style profiles that can then be used to inform product recommendations, buyers’ guides, and in-store personal shopping services; or, on a smaller scale, merchants can ask shoppers interested in new products from a particular line or brand name to sign up for alerts of upcoming launches.
- Robust loyalty programs. Merchants are increasingly investing in customer retention, and for good reason: returning buyers comprise just a third of customers, but account for 42% of online revenues, according to Forrester Research, Inc. Merchants can use loyalty points to their advantage to encourage engagement with the brand, offering rewards for activities that enrich customer profiles as well as deliver on the promise of personalized products and services. Offering exclusive perks — such as free expedited shipping for last-minute holiday shoppers, sneak peeks at new products, dedicated VIP BOPIS pickup counters, and members-only in-store events — can extend the benefits of membership beyond product discounts, and help customers maintain ties with the brand.