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Back-to-School, Holiday Shopping During COVID-19

By Miller Zell

Our nation and world are reopening in phases and with caution, so retailers are adopting new standards while also aspiring to create the best possible customer experience.

Of course, caution and new standards don’t mesh well with back-to-school and holiday shopping, annual high traffic and revenue-generating milestones for retailers, as big crowds are out and social distancing is in.

Trying on clothes for school or lengthy shopping trips browsing for gifts before yielding to a series of impulse purchases? Out and out.

The big question is how should retailers react, specifically to these critical shopping seasons and generally over the next six months and well into 2021 as we all hope for a vaccine and its widespread distribution. It’s certainly noteworthy — and worrisome — that recent upticks during reopening could threaten the in-person school year, and/or a second wave could arrive in the fall that again could change social policy.

Through the years, retailers have developed long-lead planning and large promotional spends for back-to-school and holiday shopping to serve diverse customers whom brands want to understand on a granular level in order to maximize loyalty and, yes, basket size. Therefore, a first order of business is deciding what will work and what won’t during our new normal. Some promotional elements, merchandising and décor still can be adopted or reconfigured within the new in-store experience while others can’t.

What retailers can expect with a high degree of certainty is a continued growth of customers expecting a seamless integration of all available shopping channels, with brick-and-mortar locations fully enabling in-store app use and BOPIS, which grew 195 percent in May compared to a year ago, according to a survey from Adobe.

“While BOPIS was a niche delivery option pre-pandemic, it is fast becoming the delivery method of choice as consumers become more familiar with the ease, convenience and experience,” Taylor Schreiner, director, Adobe Digital Insights, said in a statement.

What this means for retailers is that BOPIS is no longer a system that can be conducted with a portable tent, basic signage and a few orange cones. Space permitting, it needs to be upgraded into its own sort of experience, providing customers the contactless efficiency they expect while also including opportunities for more engagement and purchases.

For example, Duluth Trading Company reported 33 percent of BOPIS customers made an additional purchase in-store, according to Kimco Reality. While many customers will simply want to convert their online or mobile purchase, others might be lured into the store, as people want to shop. An MR Simmons survey  in April asked respondents what they most looked forward to post-COVID-19, and shopping ranked third (44 percent) behind seeing family and friends in person and going back to restaurants and clubs.

And retail sales in May surged 17.7 percent, the biggest monthly jump ever.

When pent-up demand and a potential return of discretionary spending re-enter the store, shoppers first must feel the space is clean and safe. Then they will want experiences they can’t get online. While touching still might be limited, seeing, smelling and hearing can be engaged. Some retailers, particularly those offering apparel, might consider investing in virtual and augmented reality, technologies that will become more effective and reliable as 5G becomes more prevalent over the next few years.

With back-to-school shopping, retailers need to be attuned to parents’ changing needs as well as a potentially fluid mandate between in-person and remote attendance. Masks and hand sanitizer will be standard, and updated, localized kit packing for required supplies will ease customer friction.

As for the holiday season, there’s the looming concern over a “second wave,” but even without that, a need for crowd control and occupancy restrictions means retailers must manage customer traffic to a far greater degree than in past years.

Appointments or reservations are an option for some stores, while an expansion of BOPIS into full-service curbside ordering could blend contactless convenience and a sense of store browsing. In June, Wawa — a convenience store in Pennsylvania and New Jersey — began offering full access to store goods via drive-through, without requiring customers to exit their cars.

Customers inside the store may be concerned about checkout procedures, whether that’s about using cash or POS keypads or touchscreens or tools for reading barcodes during self-checkout. Communicating alternatives will be important, such as contactless cards, mobile apps or mobile wallets. Hygiene and sanitation procedures must be set for associates and related to reassure customers. Further, investments in the latest antimicrobial products, including films for touchscreens, are worth investigating.

All these precautions inside and outside the store during back-to-school and holiday shopping will mean longer queues, expanded wait times and potentially annoyed customers. Figuring out ways to entertain that captive audience — live music, video shorts, holiday cheer, spontaneous giveaways, etc. — could mean the difference between a happy and unhappy customer.

In sum, retailers should consider:

  • What parts of the pre-COVID-19 back-to-school and holiday plans can be retained or modified and what needs to be eliminated?
  • How can the BOPIS program be expanded and enhanced to enlarge basket size?
  • If funds are available, forward-thinking investments in technology, such as virtual and augmented reality, might make more sense than before.
  • Is it possible to create a system of reservations or appointments for shoppers to decrease crowding?
  • How might checkout procedures be improved to ensure as little contact as possible?
  • Are there creative ways to engage or entertain customers suffering through longer queues and wait times?

Unquestionably, the norms for public spaces are evolving because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some adaptions are temporary. Many probably won’t be.

Amid the anxiety and uncertainty, as retailers try to best manage the typically high-volume shopping seasons ahead, Miller Zell holds one value above all. We help our clients create an optimized experience for their customers. That starts with safety during these stressful times, but it also continues to focus on innovations that reduce friction and improve the experience along the path to purchase.

Editor's note: This story was published in June of 2020.


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