When Melissa Davis, head of North America at Afterpay, was asked if there was one thing retailers and brands could do to help them better prepare for this upcoming holiday shopping season, she didn’t hesitate in her response.
“You must ensure that you have the flexibility and payment options in buy online, pickup in-store, and in curbside pickup, and offer an ease-of-use experience for consumers, [but] they’re going to shop — and an experience that is seamless across all channels,” she said.
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The context of her remarks is a new retail environment where online sales continue to skyrocket and where physical stores reopen doors (with safety measures in place) to satiate pent-up consumer demand for having experiences outside of their homes.
Her perspective is based on insights culled from Afterpay’s 10 million consumers and 55,000 retail partners globally. Afterpay is a retail technology firm that offers flexible payment options via interest-free installments. “If 2020 has taught us anything it’s that this year is going to be different and we expect the holiday shopping season will be unusual and it will be unforgettable, but hopefully in a good way,” she said.
Davis said the COVID-19 pandemic “has really impacted the way that consumers think, feel and approach their shopping experience.” She said in 2019, 56 percent of consumers “planned to do some of their holiday shopping online and 48 percent of those consumers planned to use buy online, pickup in-store, a trend that we definitely expect to see further increase this year.”
The pandemic has also altered the product categories favored by consumers. “At Afterpay, we’ve seen in our own data that consumers are shopping more and more across different categories,” Davis said. “Previously, it was very much fashion and beauty items, while consumers are now looking to home, self-care, fitness routines — and we expect these trends to translate further into this holiday shopping season.”
Consumers are also buying much earlier this year as compared to prior holiday seasons. “We’ve already seen a spike in consumers looking for those holiday promotion discounts this year,” Davis noted. “It’s really important that merchants pay attention to this early consumer demand and being able to service those consumers and want to be much more mindful of how they’re spending their money and how they’re budgeting out their expenses this year.”
Davis said retailers and brands need to maintain the “best levels of inventory and transparency with your consumers in terms of stock item availability, alternatives if those items aren’t available, shipping times and potential delays, and making sure that the holiday shopping experience is as seamless as possible from online to in-store to check out, shipping and throughout the entire holiday process.”
In regards to e-commerce, Davis expects robust online shopping activity to continue through the holiday season. “Consumers really miss that in-store shopping experience,” she said. “So how can you help re-create that experience for them online and have them shopping from the comfort of their home, with that convenience?”
Davis suggested offering “rich product details to help them navigate to those products when they won’t be able to touch and feel the fabrics the same way.” She also suggested having “availability of in-store stylists or online virtual try-on sessions that actually helps create an online experience that mirrors in-store, but being able to do it from the comfort of their own home.”
With e-commerce booming, retailers and brands need to get ready for increased holiday-season related gains in site traffic. Conducting a site stress test is a good idea, Davis said, noting that companies need to ask: “What does your response time look like? What does the navigation look like? How can you prepare your backend infrastructure to make sure that you’re ready to meet that holiday demand?”
Bolstering customer service should also be considered, and, “then, finally, considering auditing your inventory systems, ensuring that your site reflects the proper stock labels, descriptions, sizing and more,” Davis said.
Other considerations include offering greater personalization to include a “more curated experience online for consumers,” which will “help draw consumers in and help them find what they’re looking for faster.”
“This may include optimizing search results, including more filters so that they can look for the size they want, color, availability, including things such as videos and 360 views, as well as the clothing and items on various models of different sizes, of different skin colors so people can really see how those products will react and work for them,” Davis said.
“Flexibility is definitely key this season and retailers are going to have to adapt as we all have had to adapt in the past couple of months to new ways of shopping,” she said. “This may include extending return policies, thinking through how to staff-up on customer service and style experts, being flexible with your protocols and channels throughout your store to accommodate things like sanitation and cleaning throughout the store at different times of the day.”