The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has upended supply chains around the globe, forcing companies to rethink the way they manage production, inventories, and virtually every other aspect of operations. And with the holiday season just around the corner, entrepreneurs and leaders at retail companies of all sizes will need to maximize visibility of personnel, assets, raw materials, and cash flow dependencies to ensure they’re able to meet an uptick in demand—which will happen sooner than we think.
In recent years, seasonal shopping has started earlier and earlier, with around 40% of consumers beginning to cross items off their holiday lists before Halloween. As the pandemic persists, retailers should be stocking seasonal inventories well in advance so that customers can shop safely and avoid the stresses associated with long lines and shipping delays.
With summer coming to an end, now is the time to be planning for a holiday season that could very well be busier than ever before. In order to ensure a winter season (relatively) free of customer complaints and overwhelmed support staff, consider taking the following four steps today:
1. Plan your marketing and promotion strategy.
When it comes to marketing, digital is likely going to be your most important channel for the holiday shopping season. But don’t create your messaging in a vacuum. Marketing across all media should be consistent and reflective of your target customer’s typical buyer journey. Jeff Bradbury, senior marketing director in enterprise for Hughes Network Systems, advocates for an omnichannel approach that integrates all of the digital and in-store technologies you might be using to engage prospective buyers, with an emphasis on driving in-store traffic.
“Customers want cross-channel shopping experiences that are seamless across online, offline, and partner interactions—which rely on the essential integration of associated network systems among all three environments,” says Bradbury. “Successful omnichannel system collaboration enables retailers to use their online capabilities to encourage people to visit stores, where the overall customer experience continues and customer loyalty deepens based on the more immersive and positive in-store brand experience.”
This year, proper scheduling will be especially critical to effective marketing and promotion. With that in mind, you might want to create all outreach campaigns—including email and social media communications—well before you plan to share them with target customers. Use major dates and events (think Thanksgiving, Small Business Saturday, etc.) to anchor your content strategy, and plan your promotions for these dates around your existing inventory first. If you currently have a surplus of certain products, consider marketing them as “gifts” that customers can purchase now but ship to recipients later, or as add-ons that can be bundled with holiday purchases at a discount.
2. Develop your approach for hiring seasonal employees.
It’s going to take time to onboard any additional customer service staff, warehouse workers, delivery drivers, and other personnel you might need when holiday shopping kicks into high gear. No matter what kind of store you’re running, you’ll have to consider legal parameters and tax implications associated with hiring contractors or part-time employees, which means you might have to set aside time to get professional advice as well. As the labor market bounces back from its pandemic slump, job seekers of all kinds are already in high demand. Don’t wait until the last minute to start hiring.
There are also major differences to be aware of between contractors and full-time seasonal employees, so carefully assess your needs when deciding how you’ll bolster your workforce. If you simply require one-off support for a particular initiative or someone available to help in case of an unexpected surge in buying activity, contractors could be the way to go. And if you’re hoping to bring on new team members once the holiday season is over, the coming months could be a great time to put prospective full-time hires to the test. Seasonal work will allow you to assess how these individuals mesh with the rest of your team. Remember, if they can perform under the pressures that come with the holidays, they might be excellent additions to your company in the long term.
3. Use AI to optimize decisions around inventory flow.
This year’s holiday season will likely differ from previous years in a number of key ways, making it tougher to project demand. Forecasting will be even harder if you’re launching new products or targeting new customer segments, yet it will also be vital to setting accurate sales targets, implementing effective pricing, properly managing your inventory, and ensuring your overall success. Luckily, there are new AI-based technologies available to retailers that can help ensure they get it right.
Ali Hasan R., co-founder and CEO of ThroughPut Inc., which makes AI-powered supply chain tools, says software can take the guesswork out of forecasting: “Historic data can’t tell you everything you need to know about future demand fluctuations. Instead, accurate forecasts will come from AI-driven demand sensing algorithms that can learn from other items and stores,” he says. “Use these tools to exact detailed information from parallel marketing events, and you’ll have a wealth of information about how a new product or service will react to a variation in price, demand trends, and more.”
There is an abundance of data you can use to calibrate your operations during the holiday season. With the help of AI, you can draw useful, actionable insights from that data much quicker than you’d be able to with traditional business intelligence techniques. Use that to your advantage.
4. Create a strategy for addressing Covid-19 safety concerns.
The pandemic has resulted in a massive shift in consumer preferences for contactless payments and curbside pickups. In fact, more than half of consumers will do business with a retailer that offers contactless payment over a competitor that doesn’t. As such, investing in high-quality, no-touch payment solutions will give you a significant advantage over retail companies that haven’t yet made that transition.
Contactless payment systems do more than just protect customers. They also allow you to provide a faster, more seamless checkout experience, which can ultimately lead to more sales. Because no-touch payments are still relatively new, you might consider installing in-store signage displaying easy-to-understand directions on how to take advantage of contactless options. You could even hire support staff to assist customers during checkout.
Again, remember that you’ll want to make decisions about hiring and in-store communications before the holiday shopping season begins in earnest. Assess your needs now, and don’t wait to start executing your plan to meet demand. The busy shopping season will be here before you know it.