Three insights from retail’s 2020 holiday season

The holiday season is retail’s time to shine. And with so many changes to the way we work, shop and celebrate the holidays, analysts and industry observers billed this year as a holiday season like no other.

It lived up to the hype.

Now that the decorations are down and the dust has settled on the holiday season, we’re taking a look back at three major trends of this season and their impact on frontline retail associates. One thing’s for sure: Retailers asked more of their frontline workforce than ever before this year, and the frontline needs the right support to stay resilient to constant change and disruption in their day-to-day jobs. 

1) The holiday season got longer, and the ‘big days’ mattered less. 

In today’s climate, it’s hard to watch videos of past years’ Black Friday or Boxing Day crowds without shuddering a little. To enable proper health and safety protocols, retailers did their best to spread retail demand over a longer period of time and entice people online where possible. This meant drawing demand forward into November and even October, extending one-day sales into week- or month-long sales and switching up promotions throughout the longer period to keep things fresh. 

The strategy worked. While Black Friday and Super Saturday remained the busiest days of the year, demand was more evenly spread throughout the season. The ten busiest shopping days accounted for 35% of the season’s total in-store traffic, down from 45% in 2019. And more customers took their business online, resulting in a 33% decrease in in-store traffic during the six-week period from the Sunday before Thanksgiving to January 2, compared to the previous year. 

The longer season helped to mitigate health risks to customers and frontline associates alike. However, it also meant more promotions and information for associates to keep up on, spread over a longer period of time. More than ever, retailers needed to be able to efficiently and reliably communicate new procedures and promotions with their frontline, so they were ready to serve holiday shoppers every day of the season. 

Hear how O’Reilly Auto Parts and rue21 keep their frontline associates informed on the fly, in our NRF session on January 21.  

2) Retailers worked out the kinks in BOPIS and curbside shopping channels.

All that online shopping put a strain on our overtaxed logistics systems this season. Seeking to lighten the load—and provide options to the 71% of shoppers who would rather go to a store to pick up everyday items than pay for expedited shipping—retailers embraced new configurations of the traditional shopping experience. That meant big investments in curbside pickup, ‘buy online, pick up in store’ (BOPIS) and ship from store options.  

In the past, retailers have struggled to gracefully execute these programs. The operational challenges are significant—and so are the training requirements. Associates need to learn a new process, new systems and new standards of customer service. And when things go wrong (for example, if the email says your item is in stock, but associates can’t find it), it can leave a bad taste in the customer’s mouth. 

This year, retailers moved mountains to make these experiences seamless for customers, going so far as to make fulfilment roles the focus of their seasonal hiring. Accenture’s Kurt Salmon reports that many major retailers were able to turn around BOPIS orders within hours even during the peak of the holiday season. Those retailers who could tackle the operational challenges and get their associates up to speed fast won hearts and wallets this season.

3) Frontline associates put up with a lot—and legislators noticed.

For many consumers, the online shopping transaction will never replace the warm-fuzzy feeling of great customer service in store, and that’s a differentiator retailers should be leaning into. But there was a darker side to customer service this season, as frontline associates bore the brunt of tensions around masks, line-ups, item limits and other pandemic-related changes.

Major anti-mask protests may have made the news, but they were far from isolated events. In fact, a survey of 5,000 UK retail and distribution center employees found that the average worker was assaulted, threatened or abused every 6.5 days, more than double the rate of incidents of incidents compared to 2019. The majority of frontline associates have experienced verbal abuse of some kind, on top of the health risk they already face from working with the public during a pandemic.

Legislators are taking note. In the UK, a private members’ bill aiming to bring in tougher penalties for those who assault retailers is getting its second hearing. It’s backed by 23 major British retailers. In the US, several local governments, including Los Angeles County, are considering ‘hero pay’ ordinance for grocery retail staff who are working through successive COVID-19 outbreaks. Many retailers have also responded with bonuses, expanded medical benefits and other supports. 

Your associates are the face of your brand. But the toll of customer abuse and conflict (on top of all the other stressors of the pandemic) is significant. Retailers must consider operational and managerial changes to reduce frontline fatigue and ensure retail associates have the support they need to serve customers with a smile, no matter what comes their way. 

2020 put the frontline worker into the spotlight, and the lessons of the holiday season underscore the importance of being frontline forward. But what does that look like, and how can you get there? 

That’s the subject of our conversion with retail leaders at O’Reilly and rue21 at NRF on January 21. They share how they’ve put their frontline first with support and training throughout the past year, and how it’s paid off across the business. Register now.

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