Uncertainty has continued to lead consumer behavior throughout the pandemic, but that hasn’t stopped consumers from getting an early start on holiday shopping. In fact, experts have said consumers will be embracing a digital-first holiday season for an extended shopping season.

“Consumers are no longer taking their cues from what they see in-store and thus are beginning their shopping significantly earlier,” said Vic Drabicky, founder and chief executive officer of January Digital, the digital consultancy company.

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However, while change can generally be difficult, earlier, more digital shopping may be a good thing for retailers.

“Instead of brands banking on just a few weeks for the entirety of their sales, they have a chance to spread them out, read the market, and adjust — which should allow them to better plan their business,” said Drabicky. “Plus, I’m not sure anyone will miss the stress of Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and the following two to three weeks.”

Notably, the pandemic has resulted in not only more online shopping but more consumers becoming comfortable using digital channels.

“One of the silver linings of COVID-19 is it pushed so many of us outside our comfort zones and forced us to learn new ways of living and we have seen older generations adapt to online shopping very quickly,” said Drabicky. “According to the NRF, 45 percent of Boomers say they are shopping more online — which is huge considering 82 percent make most purchases offline traditionally. So, we are seeing a natural adoption of online shopping from the older generation which should further fuel digital’s growth through the holiday.”

However, an increase in online shopping brings challenges as well with retailers facing higher shipping volumes that meet consumers’ expectations.

“FedEx and UPS’s current staffing and delivery issues, along with the heightened public discussion of USPS’s challenges, means that purchasing a present, wrapping it at home and sending it to a loved one, will be harder than ever,” said Drabicky. “Retailers must be acutely aware of this and communicate to customers early, clearly, and often. The better brands can set expectations on delivery with customers, the better chance they have of building loyalty and advocacy. But if they miss on delivery, you can bet customers will loudly voice their displeasure.”

Another challenge this season is the additional stress and uncertainty American consumers are experiencing with the upcoming election, where reports have found finances have been top of mind.

“The worst thing for both consumers and businesses is uncertainty and the election is an enormous source of uncertainty for both,” said Drabicky. “Regardless of your political affiliation, we will all gain some sort of certainty following the election and that will allow consumers to plan their futures. So, the election could be an artificial barrier that, when completed, will allow consumers to move forward more meaningfully with their holiday shopping.”

Still, Drabicky says, with proper planning retailers will be able to have a successful holiday shopping season and deliver upon new consumer needs.

“There are all sorts of tactical things retailers can do to ensure customers are safe — social distance, masks, hand sanitizer, and so forth,” said Drabicky. “But from a macro level, the brands that will be most successful will be the ones that truly listen to customers and adapt their policies and service levels to meet customer needs.”

“It could be something as simple as making BOPIS easy or something more personal like local delivery for customers that have concerns of going in-store,” said Drabicky. “This is truly a chance for brands big and small to differentiate themselves and earn customer loyalty — but it will take creative thinking, flexibility, and truly listening to customers.

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