After last year's turbulent Christmas, retailers and customers alike pinned their hopes on a more typical holiday period for 2021. Enter Omicron, the latest variant to emerge from the years-long coronavirus ordeal.
However, this time, retailers are better equipped than ever for operating amid a pandemic. As concerns bubble up, we outline an action plan for trading.
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As the latest variant to appear nearly two years from the first outbreak, Omicron has underscored that the pandemic is far from over. Retail needs to remain vigilant and continue to innovate to survive the ever-changing new normal.
• While rapidly spreading, Omicron is not yet reported to have a severe impact on retail, though this could change any day. Regardless, retailers need to prioritize the health and safety of their workers and customers and get orders fulfilled - already a focus with the ongoing supply chain bottlenecks.
• Retailers who invested in their ecommerce and social shopping strategies during earlier outbreaks surfed the wave of growing online orders seamlessly. Those who remain capable of moving stock and sharing product visibility will outlast Omicron and future variants.
• With potential delays looming in the future, optimal products to be promoted this time include partywear and activewear, while accessories like bags, jewelry and scarves are ideal to avoid size-related returns ahead of possible closures. Cozy loungewear and utilitarian outdoor apparel can also serve the self-care and fresh air activity stories historically popular during lockdowns.
What's The Situation?
New variants have become part of the new normal. Businesses have had nearly two years of experience trading amid a virus and lockdowns and are (or should be) better prepared than ever before. Even approaching the busiest shopping period of the year, supply chain delays have led to over half of customers already completing their Christmas shopping. Additionally, limited holiday travel means less allocated spend on experiences and more on goods. Despite this hopeful outlook, COVID has been underestimated before, so retailers need to have a full action plan in place and be flexible should the situation change. Here are some points to consider.
Data as of Dec 3, 2021 via CDC, WHO & NBC News
1. Support Pandemic Recovery
The health and safety of staff and customers need to be prioritized above all else. While several retailers having pledged support for healthcare workers since the start of the pandemic, businesses taking an anti-vaccine stance can expect to be on the receiving end of some severe backlash. As part of a community, retailers have a responsibility to help spread awareness and promote immunization. Back in August, Primark set up a pop-up clinic. While not all brands have this infrastructure, they can use their platform to help encourage customers to get their booster jabs or support the health of their suppliers and garment workers in less vaccinated regions.
Valentino Email US - Oct 9, 2021
2. Overcommunication Is Key
As the situation may be changing daily, retailers need to lean on their communications to keep customers informed. Be sure to leverage all channels to reach across various demographics. There's been a recent wave of brands diminishing their social media presence or leaving platforms altogether. If you fit into this category, ensure your site or app homepage is updated frequently to reflect any changes such as delivery delays or store closures and consider reevaluating your email cadence.
With Omicron coinciding with Christmas and supply chain challenges, there will be added pressure on order tracking and visibility. Advise customers on expected shipping times and be as transparent as possible about the status and location of their order. If there are any changes to Christmas cut offs, communicate prominently via homepage banners and email and in-app notifications to avoid disappointment.
Girlfriend Collective Email US Email - Nov 26, 2021
3. Take A Digital-First Approach
Though not yet confirmed, the Omicron variant could lead to possible lockdowns and see store closures or restrictions ahead of Christmas. Regardless of store status, retailers should embrace ecommerce strategies and have explored connecting physical retail to digital lifestyles. QR codes are now part of the pandemic tapestry and can be used during the outbreak in lieu of window shopping or to make in-store experiences smoother and safer with payments and virtual queues. The potential influx of ecommerce orders will require increased online customer service. With six in ten Gen Zs doing their holiday shopping using YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook , ensure purchasing and support is optimized across all these channels.
Macy's Email US Email - Oct 14, 2021
4. Strategize To Minimize Or Extend Returns
Even if stores remain open, concerns surrounding the virus will make some customers hesitant to shop, posing a challenge to return gifts. This signals an opportunity for retailers to extend return windows and communicate, so customers know and feel at ease. In anticipation, gift cards have been a prominent fixture in emails. Another way to alleviate returns is to push products without strict sizing like accessories and promote seasonless stock and closet essentials with a broad appeal. Omicron's shock appearance has made it clear that the pandemic is far from over. Future variants may continue to emerge and put a strain on brick-and-mortar businesses, making it more essential for retailers to be investing in online sizing technology.
Pottery Barn Teen Email US Dec 6, 2021
5. Push Partywear & Activewear
The potential of Omicron outbreaks bleeding into the new year could further compromise supply chains, delay orders and inflate prices, with the risk of factories closing temporarily in regions that don't have widespread vaccine access. Retailers should be proactive with their promotions, making partywear the hero of their communications. If you're sitting on activewear stock, don't wait until the new year to kick off your advertising campaigns - start teasing fresh styles now.
Emails via Monki, PrettyLittleThing & Rixo
6. Prioritize Order Fulfillment
Though many customers have completed their Christmas shopping, retailers can still expect the last-minute rush to get presents under the tree, as well as the general expectation of modern retail's rapid shipping. Supply chain challenges and driver strikes have stalled some brands' ability to provide next-day deliveries, with Whistles and H&M temporarily suspending this service. Abercrombie & Fitch has taken a creative approach to mitigate this problem, using services like Uber, Shipt and Postmates for local drop-offs.
Retailers need to support and advertise all collection options, such as buy online, pick-up in-store and curbside pick-ups. Whether stores are required to shutter or not, locations can be repurposed as a distribution center to help fulfill online orders or as a customer collection point. Marks & Spencer has taken an all-hands-on-deck approach and recruited 3,000 head office staff to help pick and pack orders.
Banana Republic Email US Dec 7, 2021
7. Promote Local Getaways
Omicron could see overseas travel halted over the festive period. This makes the time ripe to push Cabincore, to inspire cozy staycations, and Gorpcore, to harness adventure and escapism. The crossover with Christmas adds further appeal to these aesthetics' essentials - Fair Isle sweaters, hiking boots, puffer jackets, flannel, fleeces, pajamas, fluffy slippers, beanies, scented candles and textured throws. Build these themes into self-care and wellness communications or to promote family outdoor activities like hiking, running, or ski trips if they're still on the cards.
Woolrich Email US Nov 5, 2021
8. Lock In Future Spending
A strategy actioned by retailers like ASOS over Black Friday was to offer customers an exclusive discount with their order to spend at a later date. Keep this in mind to entice customers to return to stores if needed or to direct shoppers online and help offset disappointment if in-store services or experiences need to be shut down.
ASOS Email UK - Nov 27, 2021
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