Mobile shopping.

With record sales of $59.6 billion, Black Friday 2018 is now history and so is the also record-breaking Cyber Monday. Now retailers are in the thick of the holiday season, which eMarketer predicts will grow by 4 percent for overall retail sales and 16 percent for retail e-commerce.

But with robust sales, come robust returns. According to new research from Business Insider, the 2018 holiday season is expected to see $94 billion in returned goods. Don’t let that number scare you though; the same report noted that 71 percent of consumers bought new items when returning the item in store. That’s an incredibly valuable and important new audience for retailers as they prospect.

By leveraging mobile this holiday shopping season, brands can create a human connection, and in turn offer more personal and customized content for the shopper who is returning gifts post-holidays (often in-store) and even shopping to fulfill their own needs.

Millennials will drive the self-gifting trend

According to Oath’s Holiday Shopping Study last year, 50 percent of Millennial holiday shoppers bought gifts for themselves. That means retailers can’t lose focus on driving full funnel messaging to be top of mind through personalization and utility.

How can marketers work best with such an influential generation, already impacting how some of the biggest brands in the world do business? Use the holiday shopping season and early new year to build relationships with this cohort with authentic products, services and messages, including informative premium content and immersive ad experiences.

While holiday sales are traditionally about giving to others, retailers are tapping into this self-gifting trend by also giving shoppers a reason to celebrate themselves.

‘Me Season’ follows the holidays

January is a sobering time in which we head back to work, promising healthier habits and more exercise after the holiday overindulgence. It’s also a time when many shoppers look for bargains. Our own Oath survey following the 2017 shopping season found 60 percent of holiday shoppers took advantage of deals and promotions after the holidays were over. Some 52 percent of post-holiday shopping occurred in January.

Much of this activity comes from consumers returning items or cashing in gift cards. The trend over the past few years has been that January sales have grown in concert with holiday sales. Sales for January 2018 rose 3.9 percent from the year-ago period, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. Sales were particularly strong in the beginning of the month as gift cards and exchanges drove sales, though bitter winter weather kept shoppers away later in the month.

On the other hand, returns bring consumers back to stores. Some have dubbed this period “Me Season” because consumers in January are shopping for themselves. Last year, some 28 percent of holiday shoppers bought gifts for themselves during the post-holiday season. For Millennials, the figure was 34 percent.

Even shoppers returning gifts online offer retailers an opportunity. Use mobile as a conduit to provide shoppers with the utility they’ve come to expect. A recent study found over one-third of consumers are willing to pay more for a product or service, provided they can get a superior shopping experience on mobile. That means taking advantage of new mobile tools like augmented reality experiences to help consumers visualize products in their own home, or things like mobile coupons that make shopping easier.

A missed connection retailers can’t afford to overlook

January isn’t a time to let your guard down. While your rivals are fatigued after a long holiday season, a concerted effort to draw consumers to your stores can provide an edge that will last well beyond January.

One way to get consumers’ attention is via their smartphones. Here are three ways to differentiate your brand from the rest of the pack:

  • Extended Reality (XR): Ads that use AR, VR and 3-D not only garner attention, but make advertising helpful rather than interruptive. AR ads, as mentioned earlier, can help consumers see what a piece of furniture might look like in their homes. The novelty and utility of such ads are why AR-based ads can increase engagement by 30 percent. VR as well offers a new opportunity to reach consumers in an impactful way. An estimated 37 million people are using VR this year and new VR-based TV properties are offering a means to reach a new audience.
  • Live-streamed Video: At a time when consumers can use their phones to conjure up millions of hours of video, there’s something to be said for scarcity. Providing events within a set time frame can prompt consumers to tune in. Flash sales, exclusive Q&As and product introductions all provide reasons for consumers to take notice. An IAB study found that 64 percent of consumers who have live-streamed video have engaged with pre-roll ads.
  • Utility-Focused Ads: More advertisers are taking advantage of a new generation of mobile ads that creates more utility for users and enables them to save coupons and deals to their mobile wallet. When the mobile ad appears, consumers can tap to engage, with the option to save special offers to their mobile wallet. Once saved, brands can later alert consumers to special deals via mobile lock-screen notifications. Some 79 percent of consumers say they’ve tried out a new brand because of an offer.

Such ad units are a break from the usual post-holiday playbook. That makes sense since consumers aren’t following the old script anymore, either. The idea that retailers make most of their money in the fourth quarter is a myth; sales are actually distributed fairly evenly over all four quarters. Instead of waiting for sales, more consumers are couch tracking — gathering information about products online and then buying when they choose.

The reality is most people are buying things year round. They’re not taking a break after the holidays and their expectations for personalized experiences from brands they love won’t change. Yes, the holiday season is pivotal for retail brands, but marketers should be asking themselves now how to extend their shopper experiences to everyday of the year. By focusing on loyalty, new experiences, and utility, retailers can keep the holiday momentum going into January and the new year.

Sarah Martinez is vice president and industry lead for retail at Oath.