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Naughty or Nice? 5 Holiday Shopping Trends That Have Marketers Checking Their Strategies Twice

Though mobile reigns this holiday season, marketers must invest in all touchpoints to satisfy customers across channels.

By Anna Papachristos

1to1 Media - October 29, 2012

Long before Santa readies his reindeer and packs his sleigh, in-store and online consumers are filling their shopping carts, taking advantage of the earliest sales of the season. Children are busy making their lists, parents are heading to the layaway counter, and department stores are setting up festive displays. In fact, according to Chad White, research director at Responsys, more than 28 percent of major retailers have already referred to the holiday season in their promotional emails at least once—a record for this time of year.

But, with each year's new must-have toy comes new must-watch trends that keep marketers on their toes. In 2012, mobile and social factors appear to be gaining momentum, while more traditional channels begin to blend these new avenues for communication with their tried-and-true core competencies.

"As the holiday season draws near, retailers are focusing in on customer experience and convenience across channels," says Bob Egner, vice president of product management and global marketing at EPiServer. "The lines between online, mobile, and in-store are blurring, especially in the eyes of the consumer. Retailers understand that providing their customer with a convenient way to conduct transactions across channels is going to be critical if they want to stay competitive."

According to Experian's recent holiday marketing checklist, 66.6 percent of marketers expect sales to be higher or much higher than the 2011 holiday season, but spend relies heavily on customer and retailer behavior throughout the season. The following five trends highlight what experts are expecting just a few short weeks from now:

1. Mobile Devices Make In-Store and Online Comparison Shopping Easy

In the past, consumers headed to the mall with their best shopping buddy in tow—a good friend or family member. However, today's shopper comes to the store armed with their trusty smartphone. With the Internet in the palm of their hand, customers can comparison shop without ever leaving the store. Mobile devices allow shoppers to compare prices against competitors in the market, search for sales, and read reviews in order to make informed purchase decisions.

Businesses, including large retail chains such as Target, are offering free Wi-Fi access to facilitate mobile access, connecting with customers on their terms and building trust and transparency for the future. "More and more, companies are looking beyond short-term strategies to focus on satisfying new and existing customers during the holidays in a way that will encourage them to become loyal, lifelong customers," says Larry Freed, president and CEO of ForeSee. Mobile has created stiff competition among retailers, truly making the shopping environment all about the customer.

2. Social Media Builds Brand Awareness

As brick-and-mortar stores begin to see greater integration with online and mobile channels, retailers are also beginning to leverage social to encourage sharing and word-of-mouth marketing. Jay Henderson, strategy program director of cross channel marketing at IBM Enterprise Marketing Management, suggests companies "run an integrated social campaign that coordinates all offline and online touchpoints. Social media must be as much a part of your in-store campaign as it is your digital campaign."

Businesses must make it easy for customers to amplify the good news about your brand, often by simply embedding a "like" button. This "network effect" extends the message's reach beyond the average marketer's capabilities, bolstering the marketing message and driving brand awareness regardless of immediate sales conversions. As Carrie Scott, director of product and direct marketing at Message Systems reinforces, social allows businesses to engage with customers on their terms and generate a genuine digital dialogue that goes beyond the initial holiday message.

3. Language Barriers Widen the Service Satisfaction Gap

While most companies aim to provide excellent customer service, many neglect to acknowledge the need for extended language services for their multinational customer base. According to Liz Elting, co-CEO and co-founder of TransPerfect, "With online and mobile shopping, retailers aren't just limited to one local market. Any brands, slogans, or taglines should be considered from a global perspective."

Because online storefronts allow consumers to purchase goods worldwide, companies must cater to customers on a global scale—a factor that often goes overlooked. "Consumers show a strong preference for shopping and corresponding in their native languages, and multiple studies show that language is a key factor in purchasing decisions." Though many offer translated and localized content when it comes to product descriptions, transferring consumers over to their English-only checkout and payment processes typically causes confusion that deters purchase completion. Companies need to not only focus on what they're saying, but how they're saying it.

4. Well-Stocked Shelves Please Santa's Elves

Regardless of customer service efforts, retailers will fail to satisfy if their inventory does not meet customer demand. Brynn Palmer, principal consultant of solutions marketing at Verint, suggests companies maintain adequate stock levels, while training sales associates to handle customer service issues effectively when they do arise. Brick-and-mortar employees should be trained to cross-sell and up-sell products comparable in performance and price when the consumer's desired item is out of stock in order to satisfy shoppers, maintain positive experiences, and perpetuate sales.

Palmer also emphasizes that retailers must be prepared to respond to Twitter and other social media channels. With social now being incorporated as a crucial segment of the average voice-of-the-customer process, companies must cultivate social media monitoring and response processes so they can gauge reactions to offers, products, and service in order to prevent social media uproar and viral complaints.

5. Black Friday and Cyber Monday Deals Will Span the Season

This year, deals will no longer have dedicated days. Instead, Black Friday and Cyber Monday are spreading the sales throughout the season. In many instances, retailers will offer pre-Black Friday pricing and countdown discounts, with kickoff events at the stroke of midnight. White notes that most Black Friday sales will actually start on Thanksgiving, while Cyber Monday will turn into Cyber Week.

Egner believes companies are blurring channel lines in order to remain competitive and keep customers engaged throughout December. Deals will be coming in from all angles—social, mobile, and traditional methods—in an effort to connect with customers on their own terms and ultimately build the bonds of trust and loyalty to last throughout the year to come.