For retailers, the countdown to Christmas starts in August

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Are you getting ready for the Christmas shopping season?

“Winter is Coming.” To echo the inescapable tagline from the hit TV show Game of Thrones which returned this month, we’re given a stark reminder that the festive season is never far away. With only 22 weeks until Christmas, it won’t be long until we see festive paraphernalia and gifts popping up in stores.

A common parlance is that Christmas comes earlier each year – meaning that retailers need to start planning now. Retail dates such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday are marked in permanent ink on every retailer’s and shopper’s calendar, with sales and discounts starting from early November. In 2016, between 13 November and 25 December, global online sales hit $25bn – showing the huge profit potential for retailers who make the most of the build-up to the festive period (as if they needed reminding!)

While the buzzing festive atmosphere in shopping centres and department stores has become as traditional as St Nick himself, an increasing number of savvy shoppers are choosing to swerve crowded shops and head online. Last year, IMRG research found that purchases made on smartphones were up 47% year on year in December. E-retail is forecasted to continue its growth this year by as much as 14% with shoppers clicking ‘buy’ on desktops, tablets and mobiles the world over. Given the ease of browsing and buying on-the-go, retailers need to consider their cross-channel strategy as early as possible when planning for the peak festive period.

Shopper’s habits are always evolving, to the chagrin of retailers and marketers as they’ve become increasingly complex to target. Consumers are now omni-shoppers; the ‘omnivores of retail’ who have more devices than ever to research before committing to a purchase.

Online buying is not a straight-forward shopping process. Criteo’s Shopper Story 2017 survey discovered that nearly half of UK shoppers do not buy from the first website they browse. This behaviour is most pronounced in categories like home goods and consumer electronics, both often popular festive gifts.

The traditional approach of ‘browse on smartphone, buy on desktop’ is no longer relevant. In fact, the line between the two are now increasingly blurred. Smartphones are increasingly becoming the starting and finishing point for purchases. In the UK, 52% of retail e-commerce transactions take place on mobile.

That’s not to say that mobile should now be the sole strategy for retailers, even though 30% of all cross-device transactions completed on a desktop started on a smartphone. Brands still need to have the option of a transitional shopping experience, as it is crucial in the buying process.

Loyalty to one channel or company is dwindling, as shoppers frequently switch from mobile to tablet to storefront while making the same purchase. This is because customers don’t break down shopping into different channels, they see it as one joined-up retail experience that should be delivered by the brand. The retailers who do manage to hold onto a shopper’s loyalty are the ones who consider the customer experience from start to finish. They are at the forefront of every strategy.

Developing a smooth channel experience which is consistent from device to device and upholds the brand style can better engage consumers and help maintain loyalty. A coordinated and continuous approach should be at the heart of a great omni-channel experience. Ultimately, what consumers are looking for during the busy festive season are the brands who can simplify the process, alleviate the stress of shopping and save time.

The rise of big budget TV ads designed to tug at heartstrings remain the most high profile marketing activities. But make no mistake, the influx of online shopping activity beginning from early November means that the brands who connect and create a stress-free omnichannel environment will be the ones with the highest rate of conversion come January. By bringing their festive story to life across channels, platforms and devices, brands are more likely to have happier shoppers ready to spend this festive season. After all, a customer is for life, not just for Christmas.

John Gillan is managing director of UK and Northern Europe for digital advertising agency Criteo.

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