Year after year, shoppers have come to know what to expect from the holiday season: Black Friday sales, Cyber Monday deals and crowded mall parking lots. But 2020 has been anything but an average year, which is sure to make for an unprecedented holiday season—for retailers and consumers. As the number of coronavirus cases continues to fluctuate and regional regulations shift accordingly, stores are seeking ways to keep profits flowing while keeping customers safe.

The hustle and bustle of the holiday season might seem far off, but Halloween is on the horizon and Thanksgiving isn’t far behind. For retailers, the time to start planning is now. A lot can change between today and the official start of the season, but it’s safe to assume the following retail trends will play a role in this year’s festivities.

Stores to Act as Fulfillment Centers

With foot traffic dropping across the country, many stores have begun converting their stores (or at least parts of them) into fulfillment centers. By transforming space that would normally be open for browsing into makeshift warehouses, retailers can store additional merchandise and use their physical store locations to fulfill online orders. This is a winning strategy for retailers that offer in-store or curbside pickup, however, not all retail locations have the capacity for this type of storage. Given their larger store footprints, big box stores will likely have the easiest time making this transition, as the bulk of their work will entail installing extra shelving, racks and pallets. For stores that need to rethink their layout, working with an integrated facilities management (IFM) partner is often the best way to ensure they get the most use of their existing space.  

The Role of Store Associates Expected to Shift

Before Halloween hits, retailers typically put out their call for seasonal associates to bolster staffing levels and accommodate extended store hours. Some retailers, including seasonal pop-ups that make the bulk of their profit during the holidays, will follow tradition and hire extra staff. Other brands—especially those that aren’t opening up shop on Thanksgiving and/or Black Friday—will likely forgo the hiring surge and keep staffing levels to a relative minimum.

Cleaning and Sanitation Will Still Be a Top Priority

With any luck, the rate of COVID-19 infection will dwindle over time, but regardless of the case count, cleaning and disinfection protocols aren’t going anywhere. It’s important that retailers prioritize customer safety by enforcing social distancing, disinfecting high-touch surfaces and conducting deep cleans throughout the holiday season.

Consumer Shopping Patterns are Likely to Evolve

Prior to the pandemic, holiday shopping wasn’t strictly transactional, it was a social—even recreational—affair. But this year, consumers will (and should) make trips to their favorite retailers short and sweet. Shoppers will likely plan their outings more strategically than they have in the past, refraining from meandering strolls through the mall in favor of hitting a few stores at a time to reduce their exposure to the virus. Surveys show many shoppers will do their research in advance, with 67% of consumers reporting they plan to confirm online that an item is in stock before going to buy it, making accurate inventory information more important than ever. Curbside pickup and contactless shopping options are also in high demand, and retailers can expect customers to select which stores they shop in based on their ability to provide a seamless shopping experience.

Retailers Will Consider New Store Layouts

In the weeks and months after COVID-19 swept the globe, many stores acted swiftly to redirect foot traffic patterns and rethink checkout procedures. Plexiglass sneeze guards were installed, and social distancing floor markers became commonplace. Some retailers are expected to take this a step further by optimizing store layouts for quick in-and-out visits. For some, this will mean adapting the checkout process. For others, it might entail hiring additional staff to help shoppers find what they need more quickly.

This holiday season will be unlike any other, but just because it will look different than previous years doesn’t mean consumers won’t be making their lists, checking them twice and opening their wallets. Retailers should keep their eye on trends as they emerge, as many of these new practices and protocols will be around through 2021 and beyond.

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