Retailers across the nation felt optimistic in the immediate aftermath of previous Black Fridays. Always a huge source of profit, this beloved shopping day blew away predictions by producing an impressive $7.4 billion in sales.
Expectations for Black Friday 2021 were high in light of these numbers —until COVID-19 hits. This year, fears of coronavirus transmission threaten to keep shoppers out of stores, as does a struggling economy that leaves many shoppers with little cash to spare.
Still, while profits will probably not reach levels enjoyed in 2019, retailers need not lose hope. If anything, this year offers a valuable opportunity to implement measures that will revolutionize everything from logistics and supply chains to omnichannel customer engagement.
In this guide, we offer insight into new eCommerce and physical retail trends that will impact the 2020 holiday shopping season, as well as tools and techniques to assist in preparing for Black Friday 2020.
The Latest Black Friday Trends and Facts
If the timing of the pandemic’s onset delivered a small silver lining, it was the ability to prepare for Black Friday 2021 with several months of in-store and online experimentation. Through trial and error, many companies have managed to find a middle ground between keeping customers safe and comfortable while encouraging them to continue spending.
A clear sign of promise: the surge in online shopping that occurred during the early days of the pandemic. At the time, some news stories claimed “every day is Black Friday,” due to sudden increases in online demand. For example, a NetElixir report revealed a 183 percent surge in digital grocery sales during the month of March, as compared to the same month in 2019.
Through a combination of metrics from previous shopping seasons and newfound knowledge about COVID-era retail, businesses can make informed adjustments to ensure that this important occasion remains as profitable as possible. Key considerations for your Black Friday retail strategy include:
- The disappearance of the traditional Black Friday queue. This year, big box stores should not expect long lines of shoppers waiting for doorbusters. These lines may cover the same distance, but with smaller groups of shoppers standing six feet (or 2 meters) apart.
- No more Black Friday stampedes. Another tradition that’s about to disappear: shoppers jostling as they race for discounted products. Instead, a limited number of in-person shoppers will be allowed to enter stores, which must abide by strict capacity limits. This could produce even longer waits than usual, making timed entry an essential this year.
- The era of Black Friday month—or Black November—has officially arrived. COVID accelerated this development, but it was a long time coming. As of 2019, Black Friday was accompanied by several additional shopping occasions, including Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday. Many stores even offered shopping opportunities on Thanksgiving. This year, capacity limits will encourage retailers to further extend the holiday season. Target, for example, will already provide special deals in October.
- The expansion of advanced shopping technology. Retailers experimented with artificial intelligence and virtual reality prior to COVID, but these and other opportunities may play a greater role in light of worries surrounding coronavirus transmission. Statista data cited in a Coresight Research report suggests that distribution and services spending for virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) will reach $4.4 billion in 2021.
Preparing For Black Friday 2021: A Guide for Retailers
The trends highlighted above reveal the need for a comprehensive approach to tackling Black Friday concerns in the COVID era. A combination of digital shopping and a lengthened holiday period can help retailers survive or even thrive despite COVID-induced limitations. Implement these suggestions to make the most of the new approach to Black Friday.
1. Be prepared to run Black Friday 2021 digitally.
While re-opening efforts currently allow for in-person shopping within limited capacity stores, the possibility of yet another quarantine remains. Even without a lockdown, customers may be wary of visiting stores—and more inclined to complete the bulk of their shopping online.
Areas to focus on:
- Expand infrastructure to ensure that digital systems are scalable enough to handle huge influxes of traffic. Consider temporarily broadening online infrastructure to handle potential spikes. Compression, software caching, and similar tactics may provide further improvements for loading times during busy periods.
- Run website performance tests prior to Black Friday. This makes it possible to pinpoint problem areas well in advance. Provide plenty of time between testing and Black Friday to fix any uncovered issues.
- Invest in human power and provide thorough training for customer support employees. Responsibilities may change at a moment’s notice, so employees should be equipped with the skills needed to assist customers in person, over the phone, or online. Begin training now to ensure employees are prepared not only for Black Friday but also for other occasions that may warrant an adjusted approach to customer support.
- Begin to plan digital marketing initiatives. Make customers aware of digital deals offered both on Black Friday and throughout the month of November. For visitors to your website, notify them to register for sneak peak into Black Friday offers with pop-ups. Develop Black Friday marketing ideas that address the unique nature of this year’s shopping season.
2. Overcome potential logistic challenges.
Supply chains represented a huge area of weakness during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Logistic issues have since eased up, but sudden spikes in demand brought on by Black Friday could drive new challenges.
Areas to focus on:
- Make new partnerships. Some small businesses have joined forces with larger corporations to pool resources in a time of supply chain confusion. Shipping partnerships can also prove vital as customers demand quick access to products. Consider getting on board with a provider such as Byrd or Shipt.
- Improve supply chain visibility. Transparency is crucial for every link in the modern supply chain. Integrate tech solutions to pinpoint locations and provide broad oversight.
- Optimize logistics. From sourcing to delivery capacity, a variety of logistical operations must be optimized to ensure a streamlined process every step of the way. Address changes with delivery network reroute, GPS tracking, picture capture for proof-of-delivery, and other advanced options.
3. Share a prolonged multi-week omnichannel customer engagement plan.
Customers no longer interact with retailers in a linear manner. Omnichannel marketing and engagement were already a big deal before COVID, but the virtual experience prompted by the pandemic has accelerated this trend. Make it as easy as possible for customers to use different devices, platforms, and shopping method throughout the entirety of the retail experience.
Areas to focus on:
- Invest in the right omnichannel customer engagement platform. An ideal platform for the COVID era will deliver advanced opportunities for connecting via online touchpoints. This platform should be able to build a unified profile for customer interactions and push pre-generated campaigns at the right moment across all key channels.
- Ramp up omnichannel efforts well before Black Friday 2021. Whether they ultimately shop online or in stores, customers will begin examining products long before they actually purchase them. Encourage such examination by making it easy for customers to pick up where they left off, even if using a different device or shifting from digital to in-person interactions. Don’t forget to address multiple means of communication. Mobile-responsive email campaigns, for example, can make a huge difference this year. Setup your automation workflows and finetune your Black Friday newsletters, VIBER/SMS and/or push notification campaigns to maximize your conversions. It is of crucial importance to build a dedicated engagement plan per channel, in order to create a 360 marketing campaign. Last but not least, do reassure that your brand has a coherent and robust strategy both onsite and offsite, meaning that scheduling press releases, advertorials, and guest posts can produce a tremendous amount of traffic and conversions while also organically boost your pages with high-quality links. If you want to dive deeper into this start by reading this very detailed guide about guest posting, which is a quite underestimated tactic in retail brands.
- Improve visibility for shipping. Use digital tracking to help customers determine whether their orders have been processed and when they can expect to receive products. A consumer survey from Dropoff reveals that 88 percent of customers value the ability to track shipments in real-time. While many insist on one or two-day delivery, they will often willingly wait longer if they can view shipment progress.
4. Fine-tune every touchpoint, again and again.
Seemingly small issues that may not have bothered customers pre-COVID could be amplified this Black Friday. More than ever, customers require a seamless experience. Whether online or in a physical location, every interaction should feel safe, secure, and efficient.
Areas to focus on:
- Analyze the current flow of the sales funnel. To encourage seamless online sales, examine early interactions through PPC, social media, and email marketing. Be sure to also look at the flow of traffic to your website and the eventual checkout process. Could any inefficiencies limit the sales funnel’s efficacy in the leadup to Black Friday 2021?
- Pay attention to the storefront. Provide signage to highlight expectations regarding mask-wearing, social distancing, and navigating the store. Consider providing stations for applying hand sanitizer. Use digital images to provide prospective shoppers with insight into the in-person experience.
- Direct the flow of traffic with signs and barriers. Traffic control is crucial this year. Use all available tools and techniques to help customers navigate the store in an orderly manner. Floor decals, for example, can help customers stay socially distanced or understand which way to travel in specific aisles.
- Provide multiple options for point of sale systems. Self-checkout is increasingly popular during COVID and should be available within an overarching POS approach. Additionally, modern point of sale systems should facilitate alternate options such as delivery or curbside pickup.
- Streamline the transition between digital and storefront. This is especially important for orders picked up curbside or in the customer service area. Based on the online portion of the shopping experience, customers should know exactly when to arrive and how to pick up their purchases. A great idea is to use dynamic QR code for touchless in-store interactions.
5. Offer alternatives to typical in-person or online shopping experiences.
Many customers now prefer shopping experiences that provide a middle ground between traditional in-person visits and eCommerce.
Areas to focus on:
- Increase access to curbside pickup. This clever approach allows shoppers to retain at least one aspect of the traditional Black Friday experience: day-of unboxing upon returning home. In March and April of 2021, however, strict lockdowns made it difficult to secure curbside reservations. For Black Friday, this problem can be avoided by providing additional space and personnel to keep up with demand.
- Expand in-store pickup offerings. Some customers are willing to set foot inside the store but prefer not to spend more than a few minutes within retail locations. Allow these individuals to complete orders online before picking up items in a pre-designated area.
- Provide the opportunity for same-day delivery. This helps customers access products currently stocked within local stores without waiting for them to ship from locations thousands of miles away. Many retailers now work with companies such as Shipt to provide quick access to a variety of products.
6. Prepare for the worst.
It sounds harsh, but optimism simply isn’t practical in 2021. Contingencies should acknowledge the possibility of case surges, lockdown measures, and economic roadblocks.
Areas to focus on:
- Improve digital scalability to account for the possibility of a pre-Black Friday lockdown. How will you deal with a greater-than-expected influx of online traffic if you’re unable to provide in-person shopping opportunities? What role will day-of delivery or curbside pickup play?
- Consider the potential for website security issues. Unfortunately, hackers have previously come out of the woodwork for Black Friday and Cyber Monday—and this problem is expected to return in full force as more shoppers shift to digital sales for the 2021 holiday season. Amp up eCommerce security with extensive encryption, plugins, and web application firewalls.
- Start looking into other holidays or opportunities to get customers excited. If Black Friday 2021 proves a bust, how will you make up the difference? Begin planning for additional shopping events that can pick up the slack. This concept could already be seen in several sectors before the pandemic. For example, the music industry relies on Record Store Day in late August to drum up excitement outside the holiday season.
Black Friday 2021 Changes Are Already Underway
From expanded pickup services to store closures on unexpected days, several retailers have already announced significant changes for their Black Friday plans:
Walmart announced that it will close on Thanksgiving. Remember when Walmart’s Thanksgiving hours caused widespread controversy? All it took was a pandemic to convince the retailer to close up shop for the holiday. Soon after, several other companies followed suit. Currently, these stores are off-limits for Thanksgiving 2021:
- Sam’s Club
- Dick’s Sporting Goods
- Best Buy
- Office Depot
- Bed Bath & Beyond
Target is implementing a variety of Black Friday changes for 2021. For example, holiday deals will begin as early as October. Furthermore, the retailer will make tens of thousands of additional products available for pickup or delivery.
Macy’s will stagger events this year to reduce store traffic. Another exciting adjustment: the department store will provide curbside pickup, which was not an option for shoppers in 2019.
A Gold Move: Start Early
While retailers have always benefited from planning for Black Friday in advance, thorough preparation is that much more important in 2021. A variety of scenarios could impact how this important shopping occasion plays out, but retailers can respond more effectively if they highlight every possible contingency ahead of time. Getting started now is a bold and “gold” move that allows you to make the most of emerging opportunities in a rapidly changing industry.