11th Nov, 2020

Retail Communication Strategies to Tackle the 2020 Holiday “Shipageddon”

Persado and CommerceNext hosted two roundtables with CEOs and CMOs from over a dozen leading retailers to discuss the last-minute strategies that can have a positive impact on the 2020 retail holiday season. This intimate group of retail experts discussed some of the strategies and solutions that can make this holiday season as successful as possible. Persado’s content experts have synthesized some of the challenges and provide insights on how retailers can use language to help improve holiday marketing performance. 

Retailers and direct-to-consumer (DTC) businesses are grappling with a unique challenge for holiday 2020: ensuring that online orders will be fulfilled in time for the holidays, given the surge in online shopping. Between a logistics network that is over capacity and pandemic-driven low inventory levels, retailers are facing challenges that have no precedent. The fulfillment concerns have been appropriately labeled “shipaggedon.”

In response, retailers are launching their holiday marketing early to encourage customers to shop earlier. Messaging and language will play an important role, not only to nudge customers to shop early and avoid logistics bottlenecks, but also to manage customer expectations and preserve the customer experience during a unique holiday shopping season.

Retailers that communicate well can improve holiday campaign performance

We’ve compiled a number of language-focused strategies to address key retail challenges this holiday season. Retailers can’t prevent these challenges, but leaders can mitigate the impact by orchestrating a series of experiments that communicate effectively about them.  

1. Managing “shipageddon”

Scott Silverman from CommerceNext coined the term “shipageddon” to capture the delivery challenges retailers expect to face in the next few months. Customers have come to expect free, two-day shipping as their due during the holiday season and take it for granted when planning their shopping. Retailers need to retrain customers by communicating clear and consistent expectations about when they can expect their products to arrive, and ensure that customers truly absorb and act on this messaging. This requires the right choice of language.

When the customer experience is at risk, straightforward and transparent communication can make all the difference.

Retailers need to get creative when it comes to supporting their customers this holiday season. Businesses with a diverse network of stores that are close to their customers may be able to tap into or suggest alternative delivery options, such as using Instacart shoppers to fulfill and deliver orders. Ecommerce businesses that rely fully on last mile logistics, in contrast, should create full transparency about delivery timelines as a way to nudge customers to buy earlier. Shifting demand by even one week can make a big difference this year.

Effective communication about shipping:

Don’t bury the message. Customers are counting on your business to meet their expectations, even if those expectations end up being unrealistic given the current circumstances. Don’t just hope for the best — tell people what to expect and put the message front and center.

Use the truth about shipping to encourage early purchases. The time-bound nature of the holidays has traditionally boosted results for messages that tap into the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) like “Only 2 days left” and “Going…going…gone.” In past years, the urgency was manufactured. Now it’s real. Let customers know with sincere and direct messages: “Hey, we want you to know: things are getting a bit backed up.” Retailers have naturally shied away from anything too emphatic during COVID-19, but there is a place for the honest nudge to buy now.

In past years, the urgency was manufactured. Now it’s real.

Who’s doing this well?

Bombas placed a message at the top of their web page, just below the hero image, sharing that shipping is strained and encouraging customers to shop early. It is short, clear, and direct in its use of urgency.

“Heads up: shipping could hit some snags this year, so cause yourself less stress by getting your shopping done earlier.”

2. Low inventories

Many retailers reduced order volume earlier this year in anticipation of lower demand due to the pandemic. As retailers enter the holiday shopping season with less inventory, this sets the stage for customer experience challenges as consumers get hit with the harsh reality that the gifts they expected to buy online may be unavailable. The limited supply of certain products also affects the typical deep-discount pricing that consumers have come to expect during the holidays. 

Of course, for retailers who are sometimes forced to aggressively compete for the steepest discounts and loss leader promotions during the holidays, this ability to maintain higher pricing margins may represent a unique opportunity to wean consumers off the expectation of intense promotional pricing during the holidays. Time will tell whether consumer behavior can be altered or if this is a momentary and fleeting opportunity.

Retailers can use specific messaging strategies to communicate effectively about the limited availability of certain products and categories while also suggesting ideas for products with higher inventories and even promotional pricing.

Effective communication about inventory:

  • Clarify when items are out of stock or low on stock. Don’t wait until a customer puts an item in their cart to tell them you’re out. Make it obvious on the website and suggest an alternative.
  • Promote products with high inventories. Use the opportunity to drive sales in other areas, and even experiment with lower-priority, high-availability lines.
  • Communicate policies that aim to stabilize inventories. Be clear about how long you’ll hold items in a cart or clarify volume limits so people know what to expect.

Who’s doing this well?

Old Navy alerts customers when they add an item to their cart, saying they’ll only hold the item for a couple of hours. 

3. Store safety

All forecasts predict that in-store foot traffic will be down significantly this holiday season. Some customer segments, however, will continue to visit physical retail locations to see and touch products and satisfy last-minute needs. The right proactive messaging about the steps retailers have taken to prepare physical locations and ensure customer safety (e.g. by optimizing the space with wider aisles to allow for social distancing and by adopting clear policies about store occupancy and cleaning) can make a big difference in gaining goodwill and driving appropriate shopping behaviors.

Effective communication about safety:

  • Let customers know what you’re doing. Make sure they have information on how many people should be in the store and how long they might have to wait, so it’s not a surprise.
  • It’s all about you…and safety. Some customers are going to find the safety requirements inconvenient. Head off their frustration by emphasizing that you’re doing it for them. Take a page from the financial institutions’ communication playbook by getting out early with messages that emphasize help and assistance. They build goodwill for when you need to tell someone to put on their mask.
  • Develop separate communications for employees. In-store employees have new responsibilities now. You can set them and your customers up for success with training and documentation on how to wear a mask; how, where, and how often to clean; how to help customers while maintaining social distance, and so on.

Who’s doing this well?

Target uses effective visual communication on the website and at store entrances to share what they are doing and who it is for.

During a year filled with uncertainty, we know one thing for sure — the words and messaging retailers use this holiday season matter more than ever. Both retailers and consumers are navigating uncharted territory. When the customer experience is at risk, straightforward and transparent communication, along with using the right emotions in your messaging, can make all the difference.

By taking a systematic and data-driven approach to messaging, retailers can effectively manage customer expectations, possibly even pull up demand to take some of the burden off of logistics and fulfillment, and deliver better customer experiences, which deepens trust, loyalty, and lifetime value.


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