A Smart Shopper Guide for the 2021 Holiday Season

While retailers are in the business of being ready, a smart shopper also will need to be prepared to optimize the holiday season. The numbers have begun to roll in and EMarketer forecasts that total 2021 holiday retail sales in the U.S. will expand by 2.7%. Online sales are expected to shine bright with sales projected to rise by 11.3%.

While ready has many definitions, I wanted to start with the shopper and suggest 10 Smart Shopper Tips to make the most of the season. With each tip, I will highlight what retailers must have ready to keep their customers shopping throughout the season. For starters, shoppers should make a list of the gifts they plan to purchase and have a budget in mind that helps keep them in check. Consider it a watch list and monitor when retailers put these items on clearance.

I hope you enjoy this two-pronged approach that showcases what the shopper is thinking while also suggesting where the retailer opportunity lies. Meeting the needs of the shopper puts retailers on the right holiday path and hopefully one that is profitable. A satisfied shopper should just be the beginning of the relationship where positive experiences can lead to lifelong customers.

Tip #1: A Smart Shopper starts shopping early (like now)

In doing a little early-bird shipping, I came across this “make merry promotion” from Nordstrom. Their execution includes access to all gifts, gift card options and a link to begin creating a wish list. But it is their “Shop Early & Get it in Time” message that reminds shoppers about their free shipping, and order pickup, all poised to deliver for the early gift giver.

Smart Shopper - Shop Early
Retailer Readiness:  Remind shoppers that 2021 is the year to shop “now” to avoid disappointment

Tip #2: A Smart Shopper checks to see if products are in-stock (online and in-store)

Retailers are anticipating that products will be out-of-stock due to supply chain concerns and some are even letting their customers know of these potential problems. Start by seeking out information from retailers that lets you know what products are in-stock and ready for delivery. From there, if you prefer making a trip to a local store, it’s always best to subscribe to the “know before you go” mindset as availability can be checked at the store level. This example from Best Buy highlights that delivery for this TV can be had in 5 days and that it’s free. From a pickup standpoint, it can be available as quick as 1 hour, letting the customer make the call. Access by pickup location is convenient where the retailer has a wide store footprint nearby and choices abound.

Smart Shopper - Checks Inventory
Retailer Readiness:  Offer in-store and online delivery timing at both the product page and shopping cart

Tip #3: When stocks are low, turn to digital solutions to quickly solve gifting needs

Out-of-stocks will be encountered and one of the best ways to still meet your needs is via gift cards. Digital always is advised for its instantaneous nature. Better yet, look for the GiftNow option that also provides that immediate fix. The gift recipient receives a personalized message and there is no worry around exchanges as they are free. Uniqlo closes out their homepage with “Online Shopping Made Easy” including a GiftNow link that advises shoppers to select the GiftNow icon when visiting product pages.

Smart Shopper - Digital Solutions
Smart Shopper - GiftNow
Retailer Readiness: Investigate and test digital gifting solutions beyond gift cards

Tip #4: Be smart about taking advantage of promotions

There is a good deal of discussion that promotions will not be readily available this season as the stock levels simply don’t warrant extending deals. Thinking about the calendar and the timing, October is likely to provide some opportunity for early buying.

Target announced that they would kick off holiday deals beginning October 10th and will even price-match so shoppers will not have buyer’s remorse. Watch for these types of promotional events and pounce especially when it’s an item on your list. And remember, it’s acceptable to slip in a little something personal along the way.

Smart Shopper - Promotions
Retailer Readiness: Communicate with shoppers about offers onsite and market via email, text, and social media to reach a broad audience

Tip #5: See what’s on the minds of your peers

Retailers are known for touting their top sellers but shoppers enjoy hearing what their peers are recommending. Wayfair has aggregated shopper favorites which should be a perfect destination for those getting ready for the season.

Smart Shopper - Checks Peers
Retailer Readiness: Aggregate customer favorites and merchandise as part of your holiday selling

Tip #6: Utilize chat to get questions answered quickly

Customers enjoy the convenience of getting immediate answers. While it’s present on 96% of the sites we surveyed, I compliment Michael’s for making it a community experience. Shoppers can chat with Customer Care as well as fellow shoppers to get the answers they need.

Smart Shopper - Gets questions answered
Retailer Readiness: Make live chat (with a human) a customer service choice

Tip #7: A Smart Shopper looks for retailers that offer same-day delivery

Sometimes, you just need something now, so it’s appealing to shop with retailers who offer same-day delivery. Our e-tailing group 2021 Gifting Index of 50 retailers suggests that 24% had arranged for such services. Buyers beware and be sure to check the price of delivery and that it is available locally. A quick look at a handful of retailers from our 2021 index reveals that same-day costs can be tied to the order size ($4.99 for orders over $49 at Michael’s), when free standard shipping was typically extended ($15 for those that qualify but $25.95 for those that don’t at Macy’s) to being a “member” (American Eagle Outfitters is free for members and $10 otherwise). Both Levi’s and Neiman Marcus were at the $20 price tag while Target and Apple both came in under $10 at $9.99 and $9 respectively.

Smart Shopper - Gets good shipping
Retailer Readiness: Explore same-day delivery options and see if they are viable for your business

Tip #8: A Smart Shopper is a Joiner

Joining goes beyond popular marketplaces such as Target or Walmart. There are specialty retailers who have customized programs to attract and retain their customers. Benefits are unique by merchant and for Michael Kors, VIP’s receive free standard shipping and returns, a birthday reward and an annual member gift. If you’re a fan, why not join. A Smart Shopper can earn points just for joining, submitting a review, adding items to the wish list, or signing into the app.

Smart Shopper - loyalty program
Retailer Readiness: Design a loyalty program that suits your brand and competitively match benefits such as free shipping

Tip #9: Take advantage of curbside option for the ultimate in convenience

When the pandemic hit, plenty of shoppers tested curbside for the first time. For many retailers, it salvaged some of the store business during the many months of store closures. The net-net was that shoppers like me found great appeal in quickly making a purchase online and running to the store for pickup knowing that what I needed was set aside. The Container Store was an early leader long before COVID-19 and their service has stood out as an omnichannel leader.

Retailer Readiness: If you have stores, curbside should be on your consideration list. If already in place, ensure solid execution.

Tip #10: Explore return policies to make sure they are customer-friendly

Not only do shoppers not want to pay to have their orders shipped, they also dislike paying to return them. When shoppers are excited to make a purchase, they can forget about what happens if the products don’t work out. This is the time to read the fine print. Look to see if retailers have extended the time frame for when products can be returned as QVC has done this year giving shoppers over a month past Christmas to ponder their purchases. As the dollars will add up, a Smart Shopper will figure out what it will cost and seek out retailers who make it free to return those purchases.

Retailer Ready: Extend returns dates into January and if volume and margins allow, pick up the cost of shoppers returning unwanted items

Shop Early! Shop Often!

Lauren Freedman is the president of the e-tailing group

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