shopping, e-commerce, consumer behavior

The peak shopping period between Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday may still be in full swing, but this official start to the holiday shopping season already has some teachable moments for the retail sector — namely, that there is no official start to the holiday season anymore.

“What was really different from other years was the timeliness of retailers sending out invitations to participate,” said Marshal Cohen, chief analyst at The NPD Group. “It wasn’t everybody all at 6 a.m. or midnight. There’s been staggered invites from different retailers offering up their deals. That’s a big difference from last year.”

Some retailers started as early as the beginning of November, or even as Halloween candy was still being handed out. “It’s less about focusing on a specific location [and more about] approaching it as commerce overall,” said Whitney Fishman Zember, managing partner of innovation and consumer technology at Wavemaker, a global agency representing clients like L’Oréal, Marriott and Colgate-Palmolive. “For example, Target announced and launched their Black Friday deals online ahead of time, giving consumers the chance to plot their plans and make their decisions in advance.” These influences have become major factors that are shaping consumer behaviors — perhaps more this year than ever.

Take the ubiquitous doomsday reports of e-commerce’s dominance over physical retail. At first blush, the decline in real-world foot traffic looks disheartening for brick-and-mortar stores, with online retailers clearly winning out. But the nuances matter. Comparing the in-store visit data to itself, it barely fell between this year and 2016. According to ShopperTrak data, Thanksgiving store visits declined only 1.6 percent. On Black Friday, they barely dropped at all, at less than 1 percent.

“There has been a significant amount of debate surrounding the shifting importance of brick-and-mortar retail,” said Brian Field, ShopperTrak’s senior director of advisory services, “and the fact that shopper visits remained intact on Black Friday illustrates that physical retail is still highly relevant and, when done right, profitable.”

In other words, with online retail and early promotions, consumers may take up their phones and computers to deal with the “chore” of holiday shopping, but they still look to physical stores for the experience — like a form of entertainment.

“There are 22 percent of consumers who tell us they love the sport of shopping, and they will do it by hook or by crook,” said Cohen. “They’re not going away. They’re not going to get smaller, they’re not going to spend less.…Some people live for that, just like some people live for football.”

The sentiment underscores the need for omnichannel strategies, which eschew separate digital and physical initiatives to focus on a singular experience or brand identity across all channels. This emphasis on experience matters even more during the critical holiday season.

As Cyber Monday looks to build on this morning’s $840 million start in online spending, the savviest retailers who laid the omnichannel groundwork in advance may see the biggest rewards today and throughout the week.

“One of the most important trends we are seeing across categories is ‘web-rooming,’ which is a combination of buying via retail showroom and using digital devices,” said Ian Baer, chief strategy officer at Rauxa, a digital marketing agency for brands such as Vans and Gap. “People now anticipate they can start shopping for an item from their phone, perhaps research it further from their desktop at work, and expedite their path to try on or touch the item for themselves in a retail store. Or buy something online and return or exchange it in person, no questions asked.”

According to Baer, two-thirds of consumers say they will shop online and buy in-store this holiday season, reversing historic trends in which people shopped in stores and then bought at a cheaper price from Amazon.

“It’s pushed Amazon to get aggressively into the brick-and-mortar retail space, while forcing traditional retailers to re-imagine their in-person shopping experiences to be more of an extension of online shopping,” he added.

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