Retailers, Are You Ready For A Digital Christmas?


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Retailers are gearing up for a digital Christmas in 2020 – Santa’s emailing Amazon vouchers and turkeys are getting postmarked as we speak. That’s not to say we wish for anyone’s plans to be affected, but with the Scottish government warning its citizens to prepare for one and lockdowns announced across much of Europe, it’s not a giant leap to think that, for the majority, Christmas will be completely different from 2019.

This just means it’s time to get creative. We’re entering the most important shopping period of the year, and people aren’t likely to be heading to the stores in their usual numbers. In the run-up to Christmas, it’s predicted there’ll be a 25% drop in mall shoppers in the US, and with England in a 2nd full lockdown, retail footfall is already down 75% year-on-year. Figures like this could mean devastation for an industry already hit hard by Covid, so every effort needs to be made to ensure brands are providing near faultless online shopping experiences.

An Emarketer survey found that 71% of US shoppers plan to do more than half of their Christmas shopping online this year, which back up Conversocial’s own findings. Our research, alongside Survey Monkey, of 1,000 US consumers confirms a shift in shoppers’ behavior – 83% are online shopping, nearly 50% using home delivery and 40% curbside pickup. In fact, even if vaccines were rolled out tomorrow, it’s not guaranteed that people would even return to their previous habits. When asked this exact question, the numbers barely dropped – 80% would continue to shop online and 41% want to keep using home delivery, with 30% carry on with curbside pickups.

How Automation Helps Retailers Manage The Volume Surge Of A Digital Christmas

Contact centers were overwhelmed at the start of the pandemic. Analysing the data from Conversocial’s partners showed a huge spike of inbound customer inquiries in the early months, more than double what they traditionally see in the run up to Christmas over November and December. If you look at the graph below, you’ll also see that after the initial spike, for the rest of the year, levels returned to volumes normally only experienced during the holiday season, and stayed fairly consistent.

On top of this, the number of requests our partners were dealing with this time last year dwarfed demand for the rest of 2019. So, looking at the pattern, a surge is about to hit contact centers like the Coca-Cola Christmas convoy rolling into town – holidays are coming, holidays are coming…

How Automation Helps Customer Acquisition With Fewer Instore Customers

Fewer people in stores means brands will have to rely heavily on digital channels to make up the shortfall. This brings with it increased competition for clicks in a market as saturated as a brandy-soaked fruit cake. In previous years, at least brands had their own storefront to entice customers in, in 2020 it’s not just about getting ad engagement, you have to keep their attention all the way to checkout. For retailers, Facebook’s Click-to-Messenger ads are a Christmas miracle so good that Hallmark are making a movie about them. Any engagement takes customers straight into a messaging channel, where businesses can tailor a bot-driven conversation to maximise the chance of a seamless purchase.

There’s a potential buyer journey that starts with a customer clicking on an ad for a pair of jeans, being taken directly to Facebook Messenger, where they can choose size, colour and style, but it’s out of stock. Two days later, there’s a push notification – it’s back in stock – and they can pay for it there and then. The whole delivery process is tracked, with messages updating the customer all the way their front door. From acquisition, to customer care, via engagement, an entire sales process has taken place in a single channel.

Click to Messenger ads clearly don’t guarantee a sale, but they do enable brands to start conversations at scale, utilizing Facebook’s advertising infrastructure to target the right people. Retailers need to provide an amazing digital Christmas shopping experience, and while boosting sales via a smooth automated experience is the primary concern, the customer’s lifecycle shouldn’t end with acquisition.

Embracing Messaging To Succeed

How then, do retailers set up to handle this? Covid restrictions mean customer service departments aren’t likely to be operating at full capacity, and even if they were, agents aren’t going to have the bandwidth to handle everything themselves. The digital Christmas will need automation to pick up the slack.

Messaging channels are a customer service executive’s best friends in these situations. Not only are there billions of messaging app users worldwide, they are spread across just 5 apps, run by the world’s biggest tech giants. For retailers, Facebook’s suite of platforms (Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp Business), alongside Google and Apple’s business chat functions are perfectly designed for automation and handling messaging at scale, across the entire customer lifecycle.

During the first stage of the pandemic online sales surged by 129% in the UK and Europe, a time of year not traditionally associated with huge consumer activity. Between now and Christmas, the spike of March and April shopping is bound to be dwarfed. It used to be that each step in the sales process involved multiple interactions with humans, that cost time and money for all involved. We’re not saying that removing humans from the entire process is what should happen; but by using messaging channels and bots, the most common tasks can be automated and relieve the pressure on stretched customer service departments. Automation makes for a seamless consumer experience, with purpose-built bots handling the everyday stuff, leaving agents free to concentrate on more complex issues – with more time and capacity to solve them satisfactorily.

Surviving Beyond 2020’s Digital Christmas

At the end of a nightmare year, retaining customers has to be as important a consideration for brands as meeting sales targets. Christmas may not be as lucrative as previous years, but it can be offset by providing modern, first-class customer service and help retain loyal customers beyond this difficult period. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, companies that prioritised CX fared better than those who didn’t – and they had far fewer digital tools at their disposal.

Messaging channels aren’t just a way to provide more personalized customer service, they’re spaces to provide a complete, perpetual customer journey. In the short term, rescuing a difficult year with incredible Christmas sales is a good place to start, but what brands must do is ensure there’s a plan to meet changing consumer habits and create a digital infrastructure which benefits businesses and consumers. If they’re going to survive beyond the winter, after Covid becomes less of a concern, understanding that people may prefer a more convenient shopping experience and value 1:1 digital interactions with brands is vital, otherwise there may be no stores left to return to when spring rolls around.

Steve Davies
I'm a former journalist, turned marketing and comms manager, via a brief stint running a street food business.


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