The holiday season is just around the corner, and that means Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and the annual avalanche of gifts, deals, and shopping sprees is practically upon us. It’s that time of year when consumers embark on an epic quest to find the perfect presents and snag the best bargains. But for frenzied holiday shoppers, a poor shopping experience goes over about as well as coal in the stocking.
While overall holiday spending is expected to stay relatively flat with last year, shoppers are expected to purchase fewer gifts to balance the effects of inflation. That means retailers are likely competing for fewer total purchases. At a time when cost consciousness is high and consumer loyalty is low, brands that can offer consumers a friction-free, customer-centric experience all tied up with a bow will be the winners this holiday shopping season.
Let’s delve into the latest shopping trends, highlight some common shopping experience pitfalls, and provide valuable recommendations to ensure a seamless and enjoyable holiday shopping experience for your customers that puts your brand on the nice list.
Macro Trend: What is convergent commerce?
Shopping has become an increasingly multi-channel experience, blurring the lines between digital and physical shopping experiences. While data suggested that preference for online retail was waning heading into 2023, e-commerce is expected to be a major channel for holiday spending with over 60% of consumers planning to do at least 40% of their shopping in that channel. But with channels evolving and new channels emerging, channel preferences get increasingly difficult to predict. It also makes the notion of omni-channel retail where a seamless shopping experience across several channels a less desirable goal.
Consumers are less interested in retailers creating curated multi-channel experiences and more interested in climbing into the driver’s seat themselves. Consumers want an anytime, anywhere commerce experience where they call the shots and execute their shopping activities—from browsing products on live streams to comparing prices across brand apps and AI-powered search, checking items in person for quality, ordering online to ship directly to gift recipients and everything between—wherever they want, whenever they want based on their changing preferences. That’s convergent commerce. It’s a shift from an experience that offers optionality (online vs. in-store) with parity, to frictionless fluidity.
If that sounds like a tall order, that’s because it is. Shifting from either/or considerations for the retail channels you engage in to activating across multiple channels at once in an integrated and seamless way requires considerable thoughtfulness. Convergent commerce relies on a data-informed (and frequently validated) understanding of what your customers value and their shopping preferences, strong data quality management, and a commitment to breaking down silos across teams, technology stacks, decision-making processes, virtually every facet of your business.
But it’s also a tremendous opportunity to create a consumer experience that’s truly differentiated. Consumers aren’t looking for more of the same; they want experiences that are uniquely tailored to them. And for brands that embrace the concept of convergent commerce, a powerfully divergent experience that sets them apart from competitors can be the reward.
Micro Trends: Delivering a better customer experience now
According to the National Retail Federation, this holiday shopping season is already underway with over 40% of consumers reporting they planned to begin their holiday shopping in October or earlier. That means today’s consumers can’t wait for your brand’s future convergent commerce strategies to take shape. And brands can’t let perfect be the enemy of progress when it comes to making this year’s shopping experience the best it can be. So what can brands do to better meet the needs of holiday shoppers right now? Reflecting on my own shopping experience, there may be more opportunities for quick wins than many retailers realize.
As both a holiday gift giver and receiver, my shopping considerations are the same as a lot of other holiday shoppers this season. Even though I regularly start my shopping before November, I’m always short on time. So convenience is key for me and online shopping is a great fit. I want to give gifts that feel personal and thoughtful, but with family all over the country, I’m concerned about the costs and potential delays of shipping. So like 55% of Americans who will buy at least one gift card this holiday season, experiential gifts in the form of gift cards, passes, tickets, etc. are high on my list. In what will be the dominant shopping channel (online) focusing on items that are subject to fewer inventory, stocking, and supply chain disruptions than a lot of other gift categories (gift cards), my shopping experiences have included a surprising amount of friction. So my gift to you is three ways you can ensure the holiday shopping experiences you’re serving up don’t leave consumers with a “bah humbug” feeling:
Consider the End-to-End Experience Gifting Experience
The actual purchase is only half the journey, but the gifting experience begins and ends outside the shopping cart. From the ability to effectively manage an influx of traffic from holiday browsers to ensuring gifts can easily be returned or exchanged, brands must consider the end-to-end experience to eliminate friction for both gift buyers and recipients.
There have definitely been times in my own shopping experiences where a slow, laggy, friction-filled experience has driven me to abandon ship. In fact, this year I’ve begun using the app released by one of my favorite body care retailers. I’m a bargain hunter, but I’m not great about remembering to use my coupons before they expire. I was drawn into the app by the wallet and loyalty points features that keep track of both and give me anytime, anywhere access to them right from my phone. I could shop from the app, but I like to be able to “smell before I buy” when it comes to body products and using the “pick up in store” feature allows me to browse only the inventory I can actually test in the store. Unfortunately, the popup for selecting a store by zip code or my current location just spins. This has been the case up to the time of writing this post despite multiple app updates. So I’ve got two choices when faced with this friction: I can abandon the app and move to the website in hopes of a better experience or I can say “Scrooge it” and move onto something else.
If you want to avoid turning gift givers and recipients into Grinches here are some tips for ensuring your delivering a gifting experience that sleighs from the first mile to the last:
- Get your website traffic-ready: There’s nothing more frustrating than a website that takes forever to load. Consumers have zero patience during the holiday rush. A slow website will send them searching for alternatives so your website should be a well-oiled machine. Test its loading speed, ensure mobile-friendliness, and fix any broken links or errors. A smooth online journey will make customers stay and shop.
- Take deals directly to customers: Utilize customer data to provide personalized recommendations and offers. Making your customers feel special by proactively showing them that you understand their needs and preferences will help bring them to you.
- Offer clear and flexible pickup and returns: With consumers moving between physical and digital channels across the customer journey, offering clarity around return policies and flexible pickup and return options will better allow you to meet customers in their channels of choice. Offer the option for customers to order online and pick up items in-store or return online purchases at your physical location for maximum convenience.
- Have strong support standing by: The holiday season means long hours for your customer support team. Failing to respond promptly to inquiries or complaints can lead to disgruntled customers who won’t hesitate to share their grievances on social media. Implement chatbots, and set up a system for addressing inquiries and complaints promptly. Social media monitoring can help you spot and address issues early.
Make conversion dead simple
Optimizing high-value actions like purchases to the fullest extent means thinking beyond the point-of-purchase mechanics of your e-commerce platform to other experiential elements. Using language within the purchase experience that makes sense to consumers, providing the information consumers need to solidify buying decisions, making relevant payment options easy to use, and ensuring parity of experience across device types can make or break the buying experience.
I was recently on the website for my favorite purveyor of chocolates with the goal of building a custom box of chocolates and I found myself getting tripped up at key points in the experience. After selecting the size and type of box I wanted to fill, it was time to select my candies. I specifically wanted dark chocolate and was surprised that there didn’t appear to be any search filters on the page; there was just a typical-looking search bar with “Search for flavors” as the hint text and a magnifying glass at the right edge of the box. I scrolled around the site to make sure the filters weren’t just oddly placed and after finding none, I begrudgingly opted to use the search. As I clicked into the box to search the word, “dark,” I discovered that what was designed to look like a typical search bar was actually a drop-down set of filters, which included a filter for dark chocolate. I proceeded to fill my box and initiated the checkout process and got all the way to the payment screen—the final conversion point—before realizing there was no option to select a store for pickup. At no point in the process did I have an option to choose a fulfillment option other than shipping (which also had a cost). Ultimately, I abandoned my cart after the experience left me with a bad taste in my mouth.
Here are a few tips for ensuring your conversion experience is as sweet as a box of chocolates:
- Simplify checkout processes: Your customers are looking for a seamless shopping experience, not a labyrinth of forms and confusing steps during checkout. So your checkout process should be as easy. Offer guest checkout options that prioritize speed and simplicity, enable auto-fill features, and provide multiple payment options. Simplify the process, and you’ll see a boost in completed purchases.
- Avoid hidden fees and charges: Shoppers hate surprises, especially when it involves extra costs at checkout. Display all costs clearly and be upfront about shipping fees, taxes, and any other charges. A transparent pricing strategy builds trust and encourages purchases.
- Reduce the pain of out-of-stock items: Nothing’s worse than finding the perfect gift only to discover it’s out of stock, so it’s critical to stay on top of your inventory. Ensure your inventory management software is equipped to prevent overselling, notify customers promptly if a product is out of stock, and suggest similar items to keep them engaged.
Consider people and process
Successful convergent commerce experiences require a seamless transition from one channel to the next. That means that the people and processes underpinning the in-store experience need to be equipped with the tools, training, policies, etc. needed to support customers who began their shopping journey in a digital channel (and vice versa).
I was gifted a digital gift card to one of my favorite restaurants. Because I have three kids, I tend to opt for take-out and delivery more than in-restaurant dining, and I was looking forward to redeeming my gift card for dinner after a particularly hectic day. However, I discovered I wasn’t able to redeem the gift card on my favorite food delivery app or the restaurant’s website. I had to call in and have them run the gift card over the phone. And because the restaurant offers delivery through its app partners only, I was forced to place an order for pickup rather than delivery. The restaurant is in a very busy area, and having to drive, park, and go into the restaurant completely undercut the reason why I decided to order instead of cook. To make matters worse, the staff working seemed to be confused and inexperienced with the restaurant’s pick-up processes. As a result, I spent 20 minutes sitting at the bar waiting for them to sort it out before I could pick up the dinner I’d originally intended to have delivered. I really love their food, so the experience won’t keep me away entirely. But I can tell you their gift cards won’t appear on my wish list until they offer the ability to redeem them for delivery.
Here are a couple of tips for keeping customers from going from joyed to annoyed as they transition between digital and physical experiences:
- Drive brand consistency across touchpoints: Your online and in-store experiences should feel like two sides of the same joyful holiday coin. That means these experiences should feel connected in every way. Avoid creating functional silos between in-store and online experiences when it comes to ease of purchase; redemption of gift cards, coupons, and promotions; and returns and ensure where differences do exist—like offering a broader range of product options online or running online and in-store exclusive promotions—they feel purposed and beneficial to your customers.
- Prepare your in-store team: Train your in-store staff to be knowledgeable about your online offerings and promotions. They should be ready to assist customers in placing online orders, redeeming digital gift cards, and answering product-related queries.
In the world of holiday gifting, experience is everything. Shoppers are looking for convenience, transparency, and joy during their quest for the perfect gifts. And gift recipients are looking for ease and flexibility when it comes to redeeming, exchanging, returning, and using gifts. By staying ahead of the latest trends, addressing common pitfalls, and implementing our recommendations, your business can ensure a memorable holiday shopping experience for your customers. Even if achieving truly convergent commerce is still a future destination on your roadmap, implementing these strategies will help you deliver a cohesive shopping experience that supports customers as they transition between online and in-store shopping. This flexibility not only meets the evolving demands of today’s consumers, but also positions your brand as one that truly values creating a differentiated experience that puts customers at the center. No matter where your brand is in your convergent commerce journey, we can help you ensure each step along the way creates value for your customers and your business.