It may come as no surprise that most Canadians—71%—will do some holiday shopping online this year. So, if you’re a retailer and don’t provide a positive online experience, you may face some serious long-term consequences.

Retailers are struggling to keep up with online giants like Amazon. And this holiday season will surely test their mettle. In Accenture’s 2020 Holiday Shopping Report, 63% of consumers said they weren’t likely to do business again with a retailer that provides an unsatisfactory online experience. Also, more than 40% said they plan to shop more from local retailers. And with regular retail sales generally flat, we’re expecting to see a winner-take-all market dynamic if you can’t compete digitally.

The customer experience is everything

A global pandemic has put a damper on the shopping experience, but people are still looking for savings. While 45% of Canadian consumers say COVID-19 has negatively affected their financial security, another 57% said they’re likely to be shopping more cost-consciously.

This may sound like gloomy news for retailers, but there are some steps you can take to avoid holiday blight, beginning with ensuring that you’re doing digital sales really well. Easier said than done, I know, but to excel in a slump market among skeptical consumers, you’ll have to:

  • Augment and sustain your digital assets
  • Operate every day like it’s peak season—nearly flawless operational execution across all channels
  • Focus on visibility and agility into demand changes and inventory

Many retailers have already begun to spread the holiday peak over multiple weeks, launching campaigns well before Black Friday to address lower store traffic, prevent congestion and maximize fulfillment capacity. We’ve found that Canadian consumers are reluctant to shop on the traditionally “big” shopping days this year, such as Boxing Day. A majority—58%—say they don’t feel safe in large crowds, and a notable 37% believe they can get equally as good discounts on other, non-sales event days.

And of course, retailers should:

  • Make sure inventory is up to date
  • Ensure they have the digital capacity to handle order surges
  • Provide an outstanding customer experience

This last point bears some scrutiny. While all these factors entail building a strong digital front end, the customer is clearly at the center.

To no surprise, 79% of Canadians who shop online prefer home delivery and 40% expect it to be fast and free. Retailers are all too aware that shipping costs cut into margins, but according to our survey, Canadians would opt for in-store pickup instead of delivery, if offered certain perks, such as bonus loyalty points (30%), an easier in-store pickup experience (27%), a same-day discount (25%) or simply offering curbside or other forms of contactless pickup (21%).

We’ve found, for example, that retailers that provide in-store pickup incentives fare better overall than stores that merely offer shipping options. At least two-thirds of shoppers said they would choose in-store pickup over delivery with the right incentives. For example, 30% would do so for loyalty reward points, 25% would for discounts and 21% said they would do so if the store provided curbside or contactless pickup options.

Free shipping, too, is a big plus. While many shoppers find in-store pickup to be a major convenience, our survey says an overwhelming majority—79%—prefer delivery. Free delivery, in fact, ranks far and above as the crucial factor when consumers order online. A full 40% of respondents said they expect fast and free shipping as part of their purchasing experience.

Conscious consumption

Overall, we’re finding these trends are here to stay. We’re also seeing a move toward more conscious consumption. While it’s a virtual certainty that the online trend will continue to grow post-pandemic, other factors have become important as well.

For example, we’re learning that post-consumer waste is a big factor in purchasing this year. As a result, at least 45% say they want to avoid post-consumer waste such as wrapping paper.

Consumers are also aware that people are at risk of losing their jobs if business is slow for a retailer. This may explain why more than half of Canadian shoppers—53%—prefer to shop at Canadian retailers and support local businesses. Another 57% say they’re much more inclined to buy locally sourced products when holiday shopping.

Some numbers I found particularly striking all have to do with the rise in consumer consciousness:

  • 54% say they’d be inspired to shop with retailers who have responded well to—and have supported their staff during—the pandemic
  • 51% say they’re likely to make more environmentally friendly, sustainable or “ethical” purchases
  • 28% are buying more seasonal produce to reduce how far food travels, and 31% will do so in 2021

These trends point to a retail revolution. Not only are we seeing people buying more online, but their expectations are higher than ever. And it isn’t just about the quality of the product or service anymore. Today, we see a generation of consumers concerned for their health (and the health of their neighbours) as well as their environmental footprint, among other conscious factors. Retailers who can’t provide an experience that seamlessly blends satisfaction with corporate responsibility will almost certainly be left out in the cold—this holiday season and perhaps forever.

Gregor Barry

Managing Director – Accenture Song Lead, Canada

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