For years, Black Friday devotees have swarmed to packed stores to get their hands on discounted devices. But traditional “doorbuster” sales strategies have been sidelined this year, for obvious reasons. 

For retailers, there’s no precedent for how Black Friday or Christmas will play out – particularly as the outbreak forces further uncertainty and countries across Europe re-enter lockdown.

Companies that remain agile and pay attention to the latest changes in consumer attitudes will be able to best navigate this uncertain period. 

Using our new Zeitgeist dataset, covering current and buzzworthy topics every month, we’ve pinpointed three key insights set to define this year’s holiday season.

1. Offline retail shouldn’t be cast to one side.

Black Friday has followed in the direction of Amazon’s Prime Day (which occurred in October this year), by gradually becoming more digitally-led. According to Salesforce, last year’s event raised $7.2 billion in digital sales across the U.S., a 14% increase on 2018.

With a second national lockdown in the UK threatening to last well into December, retail-minded consumers are largely expected to resort to online methods instead.

As such, online retail sites make for the most popular destination for purchasing among this year’s Black Friday shoppers.

Digital retail channels are booming

Past analysis has painted a gloomy picture of online shopping slowly cannibalizing physical retail. But our research shows even a pandemic has failed to deter many of these digitally-inclined consumers from buying in-store. 

1 in 4 Black Friday shoppers plan on looking in shopping centers for deals, despite the event often being associated with large crowds.

42% of Black Friday shoppers prefer to shop in-store. So, if consumers feel adequate safety measures are in place, retailers may be able to tempt back some of those deterred by health concerns.

Walmart has already announced its plans to spread Black Friday deals over three weekends in an effort to reduce crowds; and this approach needs to translate across the entire holiday season. 

Meanwhile, M&S has become the first UK retailer to offer an appointment-based shopping service, where customers can book time slots before going to stores. This is likely to boost the confidence of those who want to shop in-store this year, should restrictions relax towards December.

Younger consumers in particular crave experiential shopping. Despite being more tech-fluent than their older counterparts, millennial Black Friday shoppers are the generation most intent on shopping in malls for deals this November. 

They are prepared to make the switch, however, with 64% of UK Gen Z/Millennials intending to shop using online retail sites on Black Friday – bolstered by an additional 50% who cited physical retail; now left with online-only strategies.

Flush with innovative technology and an instagrammable backdrop, it’s little wonder Harrods has opened its first-ever freestanding beauty store – designed to attract younger followers, at a time when other retailers are lessening their physical footprint.

2. The top purchase categories for November have changed.

Last year, electronics – Black Friday’s usual headline purchases – were the most desired deals. 

In typical fashion, analysts predict that in-demand products like iPads and the Nintendo Switch will be at the forefront of competition throughout November, which explains why Walmart’s first two events spotlight personal and home electronics.

But our data shows the dramatic effect the pandemic has had on purchase priorities; as this time round, clothing and gift purchases are in the limelight. 

Clothes shopping in demand in 2020

New focus on apparel and gift-giving in the lead up to Christmas likely reflects pent-up demand: in the U.S. and UK, clothing and gift purchases fell between January-May, and only started picking up again in June. 

Giving apparel and gift categories greater visibility to capitalize on demand is likely to help retailers make up for lost revenue over the Christmas period. 

Buying high-ticket items might be on the minds of consumers who’ve found themselves with more disposable income from having eaten out less and saved on commuting amid the pandemic.

But current attitudes toward spending aren’t necessarily driven by income: 16% in the high-income group plan to spend more on Christmas this year, compared to 15% in the low bracket. 

Regardless of money, many are taking a more economical approach to buying over the holiday season, with 44% of Christmas shoppers aiming to spend less. Therefore, retailers need to think strategically about the products they choose to spotlight and the best ways to market them.

In the U.S. and UK, among those who delayed buying clothing, 39% said they aimed to prioritize this kind of purchase in April – rising to 47% by June-July. In contrast, those prioritizing home appliances fell from 52% to 47% within the same timeframe. 

It’s likely that many tech purchases were “taken care of” during lockdown. This isn’t to say retailers shouldn’t continue showcasing electronics, but rebalancing marketing activity in favor of other, equally sought-after product categories may lead to a more successful holiday season. 

However, it’s worth remembering that the best ways to sell clothing and electronics are markedly different.

If you want to target clothes buyers, the ability to spread payments over time works particularly well as an online purchase driver; whereas exclusive content is more likely to incentivize those buying personal or home electronics. 

Given clothing items are prioritized by in-store shoppers, solutions like Klarna In-store will enable physical retail stores to stand out, and help level the online-offline playing field. 

3. Online capabilities come first, but safety is close behind.

Moving on from Black Friday to the overall Christmas period, shoppers have enhanced expectations for shopping online and in-store.

2020 will partly be remembered for panic buying and toilet paper shortages that took place in the first four months of the year. With mental images of empty shelves still lingering, this fear has translated into additional demands this holiday season. 

Consumer shopping priorities

Understandably, increased online shopping capabilities are a widespread expectation this year. 

Ecommerce experts are anticipating a “shipageddon” in the U.S.: chaos as retailers fail to deliver an unprecedented number of parcels in a short space of time. 

The National Retail Federation recently released the ad campaign “Shop safe, shop early”. But retailers will need to do more to convince this year’s procrastinators.  

Making the situation known to customers via brand websites, social media pages and emails will place some of the onus for avoiding late deliveries on consumers. 

Last year, Target included a banner counting down to an order deadline for guaranteed delivery by Christmas. Popular online fashion sites like Shein also give actual stock numbers when supplies are running low, which is a useful way of remaining transparent while creating buyer urgency. 

At the same time, an increase in online shopping capabilities is already a priority for 54% of UK Christmas shoppers; but the lockdown is likely to further emphasize this.

Brands need to be doing everything they can to go beyond this and appeal to consumer interest in click-and-collect (44%) or curbside pickups (18%).

Convenience aside, around half of consumers want brands to up their safety efforts over the holiday season.

Among Christmas shoppers who prefer to shop in-store, safety measures are the leading priority. We’ve already mentioned the importance of experiential retail as a drawcard, but safety must be an intrinsic part of this year’s in-store shopping experience. 

Should restrictions in the UK ease ahead of Christmas, retailers will need to make their safety-related intentions and actions known to more hesitant customers especially. 

This may rule out Black Friday, but nearly half of Christmas shoppers in the UK expect safety measures in-store.

With a longer time window and more opportunity to shop during quieter periods than Black Friday shoppers, coaxing these consumers back should be less of a challenge. 

This is a novel situation for shoppers as well as brands, so upping this year’s communication efforts is necessary for both to navigate a difficult Christmas period as smoothly as possible. 

Ending a tough year on a high

Retailers have the opportunity to bring joy to many disheartened consumers, and erode the usual frenzy that characterizes the seasonal shopping experience. 

Many will be buying online this year, so being responsive and demonstrating trustworthiness should be at the cornerstone of every marketing and logistics strategy.

But with physical touchpoints like click-and-collect, and consumers still planning to venture inside stores, retailers need to ensure their messaging focuses on the safety measures they have in place; while being able to excite today’s Instagram enthusiasts, who expect stores to embody the spirit of Christmas. 

Delays will be inevitable in many cases, but retail brands have the power to ensure community as well as empathy remain at the heart of this year’s holiday season. 

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