Mastering Cyber Monday 2020: How the Pandemic Is Pushing Ecommerce to Evolve This Holiday Season

It’s the Holly Jolly Holidays

The past few decades have gifted the world with a lot of new (and bizarre) traditions. Shark Week, disproportionate gender reveal parties, and Cyber Week—or, the span of shopping days starting on Black Friday and ending with the close of Cyber Monday.

In years past, the jellied cranberries have hardly been cleared from the Thanksgiving table before families gathered by the door to slip on their boots and stuff into their parkas as they prepared to get the best deals on gifts and gadgets at local stores. 

These days, however, you’re more likely to gather ‘round the desktop than the door, but the idea is the same—we’re going shopping.

Black Friday and Cyber Monday drive shoppers to the digital checkouts in droves and have been continuously smashing revenue records for years. In fact, a lot of ecommerce stores count on the financial boon of Cyber Monday to keep them afloat well into the next year. And while the National Retail Federation usually doles out ambitious predictions for holiday spending, 2020 is bound to be a wild card.

As the coronavirus continues to alter sweeping traditions like summer vacations, dining out, and the back-to-school season, its inevitable effect on holiday shopping in 2020 leaves only one question—how much of an impact will the COVID-19 virus have on the health of ecommerce?

The Birth of Black Friday: A Marketing Scheme for the Ages

Let’s start this whole shebang with a bit of a history lesson. In 1939, the U.S. was still reeling from the Great Depression and being rumbled by a recession—retailers were hurting. That year, Thanksgiving fell during the fifth week of November, leaving stores feeling certain that a shortened holiday shopping season could financially ruin them for good. 

After a bunch of hubbub, Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving up a week to give retailers more time to make money before year’s end. Not every state adopted the shift at the time, and there was a lot of confusion, but thanks to a law finally passed by Congress in 1941, Thanksgiving was officially (and forever) moved to the fourth Thursday in November.

It didn’t take long before people started taking the Friday after Thanksgiving off so they could take in a long weekend and tackle their holiday shopping early. During the years that followed, the Friday after Thanksgiving became a veritable holiday in itself, and retailers took notice. To entice more people to buy on that day, many stores started offering steep one-day-only discounts. People love a deal, and soon the Friday after Thanksgiving became a day stores could count on turning their bottom line from red (at a loss) to black (at a profit). 

Black Friday has since become a day of increasingly impressive deals, crowds, elbowing strangers, and getting that coveted Furby. And since the boom of ecommerce, Cyber Monday has entered the arena as a digital version of the in-person experience, normalizing holiday shopping done completely online. What once was a single-day event is now a weeklong shopping spree that starts the eve of Thanksgiving and stretches into the next week.

The Frenzy of Black Friday and Cyber Monday

Why do people endure this modern-day chaos created by retailers? Sure, hearing about your friends getting a massive deal on a 65” TV could induce a lot of FOMO, but the reasons consumers come out in droves are varied. For some, it’s about carrying on a family tradition (even if it’s super stressful), for others, it’s all about that dopamine rush.

We feel good when we shop, and we feel especially good when we get things for free. So, the more free loot your favorite stores offer, the more they know you, dear shopper, are going to eat it up. 

This means free knick-knacks in-store, but as ecommerce is hogging more of the holiday shopping pie, it also means free shipping, free payment options, a free sticker in the box. Who cares what it is, it’s free, and every year the stats show that shoppers love it.

The Holiday Tradition that’s Not Dying Down (Unlike Our Love for Fruitcake)

You’ve probably gathered by now that since Black Friday and its cohort of holiday shopping days has been chugging along for nearly 80 years, it’s not about to die anytime soon in lieu of a more restful Thanksgiving weekend. In addition to the trend’s longevity, holiday shopping now accounts for 20% of total annual sales for retailers (higher for some industries). So, much like the retailers of 1939, this shopping season really is make or break for many stores.

But as the day has expanded to days and the deals have gotten even better, just how much has the shopping tradition taken off?

Black Friday has become one of the biggest shopping days for U.S. consumers as folks have spent more than $7 billion in 2019. By 9:00 A.M. last Black Friday, spending had already grown 19% compared with Black Friday 2018. 

And Cyber Monday? Despite its relative infancy compared with brick-and-mortar holiday shopping, sales on Cyber Monday grew from $6.6 billion to $9.4 billion between 2017 and 2019—with more than $3 billion in sales made by folks doodlin’ around on their smartphones while it snowed outside. Billions of dollars are hard to imagine, so here’s another way to think of it: U.S. consumers spent $6.5 million every minute for 1,440 minutes straight. 

The very, very American visualization: If you were to lay every one-dollar bill spent last Cyber Monday end to end, single file, that line of bills would stretch 4,263,889 football fields. That’s further than even Brett Favre could throw.  

Remember that cheerful image of a family heading to gather ‘round the desktop computer in their Thanksgiving stupor from the intro? That wasn’t a coincidence cooked up by this copywriter. As ecommerce continues gaining massive popularity, so too does shopping online for the holidays. Overall, ecommerce holiday spending grew 13.1% in 2019, and combined with in-person holiday shopping, it was the first year to see more than $1 trillion in sales.

The National Retail Federation shows that the span between Black Friday and Cyber Monday is the very top consumer spending event of the year. Through the 2019 winter holiday season, the average person spent $1047.83. A lot of that money went to hot ticket items like Frozen 2 toys, TVs, Airpods, air fryers, NERF products, and the Nintendo Switch. 

Now that we know what 2019 holiday shoppers wanted to buy, how they bought it, and how much they were willing to spend, let’s look ahead to what 2020 could hold.

Ho Ho Holy Pandemic

There’s no way to dance around how bizarre the 2020 holiday season will be. A global coronavirus pandemic has rocked the lives of pretty much everyone on the planet. Even if you’re fortunate enough to be living in a place like Greenland, which has endured no loss of life over the course of the virus, every other part of daily living has been affected. 

Global manufacturing has been hindered, inventory of essential items has been inconsistent, employment rates have plummeted, and it’s going to be a slow, long climb to return the world economy to its former self. In a nutshell, most of the ingredients that go into a successful shopping season—personnel, operations, supply chains—have been compromised from the end of 2019 until now.

Below is a chart showing the projected impact of coronavirus by industry in 2020. The impact on each sector ranges from 1 (minor impact) to 5 (severe impact).  

As we’ve seen, a successful holiday shopping season, one where stores can actually boost their bottom lines and move from red to black (like the name implies!), relies exclusively on a couple factors:

  1. Having products to sell.
  2. People who can buy those products.

At the surface, the pandemic has supposedly put a damper on both of those must-haves. However, what the pandemic did not tamp out is the human ability to adapt. In just a few short months, human ingenuity has pushed a lot of boundaries, consumer behaviors have shifted, and ecommerce has quickly evolved to absorb the processes that brick-and-mortar can’t provide right now. 

Ecommerce Hits Historic Growth Amidst COVID-19 Pandemic

Stay-at-home orders and precautions to stifle the spread of coronavirus caused nearly every brick-and-mortar store to take a hard right turn with its operations. Instead of business as usual and letting people come in, take their time, and shop around, physical locations have had to close in-person shopping and revamp their online tactics. 

*In the distance, ambient department store soundtracks screech to silence.

In-person shopping has taken on new life as:

Curbside pickup: Customers place an order online and in lieu of shipping their purchase, they drive to the store and pick it up without ever having to go inside.

Classic ecommerce: The online shopping we know and love, AKA buying something online and having it shipped to our homes with no person-to-person contact.

Online orders for curbside pickup jumped 208% YoY this April, which indicates that people have embraced this quasi-”normal” shopping experience. April, likely because of widespread stay-at-home mandates, appeared to be the height of online shopping so far during coronavirus, showing nearly 100% YoY growth. 

Consumers have been slowly but steadily turning toward online shopping for years now. And while ecommerce was still only 16% of total U.S. retail sales in 2019, this pandemic-induced push to shopping online is increasing penetration faster than anticipated—with some reports predicting jumps to a massive 28% market share by the close of 2020. 

Ecommerce and Consumer Behavior Shifting in Tandem

If you suddenly came across a time machine and brought these stats back to ecomm analysts in 2015, they’d think ecommerce as a whole has surpassed expectations in the future. It’s a hit! People love it! The internet is everything!

However, we need to pump those brakes and assess the (suddenly forced) shift in buyer behavior that’s fueling this surge in online shopping, as well as examine the viability of these changes for the long haul.

Ecommerce is up, but retail spending is down.

First, we should address the struggling economy and its effect on shopping overall. While people have been told to turn online for their needs as stores temporarily shutter, it’s predicted that U.S. retail sales, including auto and fuel, will still eat a 10.5% drop in 2020.

In comparison, 2009 saw a drop of only 8.2% amid the recession. As mentioned earlier, it could be years until we see retail rebound. Even though ecommerce is thriving, that success needs to be taken with a grain of salt when strategizing for the holidays. People are shopping online more but they are not spending as much as they had pre-pandemic.

There are more first-time online shoppers.

Despite more ecommerce hogging a higher share of retail sales pretty much every year, there are still loads of people who don’t browse or buy their stuff online. In 2020, fewer than 30% of people across the globe are “digital buyers.” 

There are a lot of reasons people prefer to purchase in the confines of a brick-and-mortar store—reasons range from technical limitations all the way to simply preference—but with stores closing off their interiors, these ecommerce holdouts have had to adjust.

Since the start of the year, there’s been a 160% increase in online purchases from new or low frequency users, especially in under-penetrated verticals like grocery or pharmaceuticals. The number of newcomers heading through online checkouts is probably what accounts for much of ecommerce’s growth over the recent months.

Behavior is different from market to market.

A shopper’s geography isn’t an unusual factor to consider when it comes to your marketing, inventory, and more. For example, you probably spend more to run paid ads for the sunglasses you sell to people in Florida versus how much you spend to advertise to people in Seattle. Or maybe an electric scooter makes more sense to market to people who live in condensed cities instead of people who live in sprawling farmland lined with dirt roads. 

This year, consumer behavior and interests will also depend on another factor: How many cases of COVID-19 are in their city. The virus is still spreading across the U.S., with many “hot spots” appearing and dissipating from week to week. Eighty percent of consumers in markets experiencing spikes of COVID-19 have heightened health fears, causing fewer than 30% of people to feel comfortable going out for non-essentials or visiting a shopping center.

The more positive cases of the COVID-19 in a market, the less likely consumers are willing to venture out, even to your curbside pickup option.

Banks have had to reduce credit limits.

Having experienced the recession of 2008, banks are better positioned to handle the dip in the economy. However, banks have also taken action with the credit they offer. In April, 25% of credit card holders in the U.S. had their cards closed entirely or saw a reduction in their credit limit. While this is to avoid a crisis in the future, it still means lots of shoppers will have less credit to count on for their shopping.

An eerie Depression-era mindset is resurfacing.

Remember how your grandma would save e v e r y t h i n g? From collecting used sheets of aluminum foil to a short length of twine to bottles of mercurochrome in the medicine cabinet? She wasn’t just a regular ol’ pack rat—she was a product of the Depression, hanging onto resources for a rainy day due to the deep uncertainty of the times. 

Jump ahead to 2020. Unemployment rates in America peaked at 14.7% in April, which is a massive jump from the low 3.5% unemployment rate reached just 2 months earlier. A rate that high had not been seen since the Depression, cuing the instinct to hoard resources in case worse comes to worst.

No matter the number of COVID-19, both markets where the virus has stabilized and those where it’s still advancing are rife with economic concerns. Eighty-eight percent of consumers are still worried about the pandemic’s effect on the economy, with 65% facing fears about their personal job security.  

Even if a particular market is lucky enough to have dodged the coronavirus bullet by maintaining a single-digit count of positive cases, snubbing the spread of the virus early on, experiencing minor layoffs and low unemployment rates, and providing a relatively stable retail environment, the overall declining economic conditions and uncertainty across the U.S. has impacted buyer behavior everywhere.

The Silver Linings for the 2020 Holidays

While it’s clear most people in the U.S. have been cutting back on their shopping in order to conserve money in case their job or the economy continues to deteriorate, there is a lot of good news for online merchants out there:

It’s clear that even though factors like employment and financial security will still be lurking in the periphery, the fears have lessened enough that holiday cheer will overcome. Plus, since 2020 has been such an unpredictable, collective upheaval, celebrating the holidays is giving everyone something to look forward to. 

Unlike postponed concerts or cancelled festivals or closed bars, coming together in a small family gathering or even sending gifts to loved ones is one spot people can find good in the year. 

We now know people will be shopping and they will be shopping online, but what exactly will consumers be after this year? Will the Nintendo Switch still rank as one of the top gifts, or have spending priorities shifted alongside other behaviors throughout the year?

Where Shoppers Will (Probably) Spend Money This Year

The truth is, we aren’t just shopping differently—we’re doing everything differently. Pretty much everything about how people work, play, think, eat, do anything has been disrupted by the pandemic. Even slight changes in one’s daily routine or hobbies will lead to a change in what people buy this year, and we’re thinking the numbers all add up to people spending their money like this:

People are shopping with a conscience.

This year’s holiday shopping lists might be rostered by less wasteful products. Seventy-five percent of shoppers are limiting food waste, looking for sustainable options, and choosing to shop with brands that also help support the environment.

Shoppers are staying in their communities.

Working through a pandemic with your community is definitely one way to strengthen those neighborly bonds. You’re all in this together, right? At least 80% of shoppers feel more or just as connected to their community since the start of the pandemic, and this connection is evident in their intentions to shop local.

Nearly 60% of consumers have a newfound vision of shopping from neighborhood stores or buying locally sourced goods, with most people planning to continue that behavior long after the pandemic has ended.  

Everyone is into different hobbies now.

Remember how your Instagram feeds seemed like endless scrolling through photos of fresh-baked bread in March? Yeast was impossible to find? Canning jars were being sold on the black market for triple their MSRP?

With more time spent inside the home, people have been dabbling with hobbies and pastimes that require lots of at-home time. Hobbies that have taken on a new wave of popularity include:

It’s also important to identify what is not on this list. Things like luggage, money for travel, cruises, cars (and accessories), team sports equipment, hotel stays, and more aren’t likely to be hot buys this year. And while 2019 holiday spending was mostly distributed toward gifting experiences—concerts, ski lift passes, cooking classes—it’s safe to say most experiences will be off limits for the near future.

We could get a good idea of what’s trending by checking out what Google is seeing. At the start of the pandemic, searches for home workouts were up 488%. Netflix was up 122%, and searches for board games were up more than 300% compared with the same month in 2019. These new hobbies will definitely play a role in what your fam is asking for this holiday season.

Millennials will be shopping online the most. 

If we look all the way back to the 2019 holiday shopping season, 64% of millennials planned to do their shopping online. And in 2020, we should expect a repeat performance.

While millennials may not earn the most or spend the most, they’re the ones heading to your online store the most. They grew up alongside technology, more so than Gen X, and even though Gen Z is the first generation to grow up with ecommerce as we know it, they don’t yet have the spending power of other generations.

(To maybe no one’s surprise, seniors are the only generational group that planned to do more of their shopping in store than online in 2019—a plan which may be totally upended this year.)

Rich people will still be spending more. 

In 2019, it was forecasted that 60% of all holiday spending would come from high spenders, AKA people who spend more than $2,100 during the holiday season. (Remember, earlier we mentioned how the average is around $1,000.) So all is not lost for online stores selling high-price goods, especially if they align with hobbies that are up in popularity such as movie watching and video games.

Ecommerce Strategies to Set up for The Holidays

As an ecommerce merchant, you’re directly affected by the ebb and flow of consumer behavior. While your ecommerce store may have raked up more visits or page views since the start of 2020, the stats show that order values have probably shrunk a bit, or perhaps order frequency has slowed, or maybe you’re caught in an industry that has been hit hard by the pandemic (such as luxury suits or luggage). 

Until this point, we’ve uncovered these truths about how people are shopping right that you can count on in your holiday planning:

Now that we know who’s shopping, where they’re shopping, and what they’re shopping for, let’s hone how you’re going to sell. Consumers are being inundated with competing ecommerce stores. While long-time retailers are doubling down on their ecommerce efforts as a result of the pandemic, there is a lot of noise in online shopping—especially when it comes to (the store that shall not be named but we’re going to say it anyways to avoid confusion) Amazon. 

What will it take to overcome Amazon?

At the start of the pandemic, people were scrambling for essentials. They needed sanitizers, hand soaps, toilet paper, batteries—anything to keep them afloat for an uncertain time of quarantine—and they needed all of it fast. Amazon’s established logistics and delivery operations in combination with their famed 2-day shipping and competitive prices made the marketplace a top supplier of essentials. 

In the first quarter of 2020, Amazon’s sales had already grown 26% YoY with net sales hitting $46 billion. However, its shady treatment of workers amid the pandemic in addition to the shift in shopper behavior toward shopping small or local could affect its reputation and sales in the long run.

If you’re a smaller ecommerce seller (which, to be clear, is pretty much every single merchant that isn’t Amazon), how are you going to compete with Amazon’s infrastructure, fast delivery, and burgeoning customer support without a team of thousands or billions of dollars to toss around? (Not to mention its pandemic-fueled world domination growth over the course of 2020?)

Ecommerce competition with a heart

It comes down to the customer experience. Since the start of the coronavirus, shoppers have stated that they’re more conscious of the stores they’re shopping with, opting for sellers that are smaller, environmentally friendly, and doing social good. 

They’re looking for stores that offer a better experience, and now, more than ever, shoppers crave being treated with empathy and kindness (hence the rise of empathetic marketing approaches).

Strategy: Set up All Your Marketing Channels Now

Your ecommerce website might be looking sharp with handsome product imagery and fast load times, but what’s the rest of your marketing strategy look like? Think of your website as the hub of your operations, and now’s the time to start building out the spokes if they aren’t already in place.

Expand your omnichannel approach to include outlets such as:

Setting up various channels is how you can establish a closer relationship with customers. Whether you’re communicating with texts, in a friendly chat on your store, or landing in their inbox, the willingness to communicate in a genuine and inviting way will create the experience customers remember. 

Strategy: Offer Package Protection and Peace of Mind

Lots of troubling data has surfaced over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. But one that most closely relates to online merchants is the rise in package theft. With the surge in package delivery, porch pirates have been having a heyday with their bounties.

Roughly 1 in 5 Americans have had a package stolen in the past 4 months, and more than 50% have reported multiple package thefts in the past year. Even though packages are being swept up left and right, the vast majority of folks aren’t doing a darn thing about it—but that doesn’t mean they won’t blame the merchant if (when?) their purchase goes missing.

More than half of consumers say the post-purchase experience is when their loyalty is won or lost, and taking the blame for a stolen package is one way to sour the experience. Offer your customers package protection at the point of checkout. With Route, merchants can instantly approve claims without any manual hassle on their end and no runaround for the consumer.

Proactive package protection can also reduce a seller’s customer support-related costs by more than 90%. Giving your customers an easy way to report a stolen package, get reimbursed for that purchase, and be kept up to speed with notifications boosts satisfaction and long-term loyalty.

Strategy: Provide Real-time Tracking for Pretty Much Everything

Part of curating a memorable experience that celebrates your customers every step of the way means revolutionizing how we track packages. Nothing is duller than opening an email with a long tracking code only to click another link or two just to see the status of your package. What’s more is that statuses like “in-transit” are vague, unclear, and outdated. 

With Route, merchants can offer customers a real-time look at where their purchase is. The Visual Tracking map shows customers a real-time view of their goods—and where they are when they’re floating around their “in-transit” status.

Plus, merchants that offer real-time Visual Tracking reap the benefits of:

Plus, being able to see exactly where their purchases are helps customers know to snatch their packages opon delivery before a porch pirate gets there first. As the holidays come up, ensuring shoppers stay updated about their purchase’s whereabouts is critical to providing a first-class experience for all. 

Strategy: Craft Consumer-conscious Offers

Consumers may still be worried about the uncertainty of how long COVID-19 will hang around come the holidays, but there are cost-effective ways to lower the threshold to purchase.

Offer flexible payment options: As people try to conserve money, or as they try to rebuild after being laid off in 2020, providing more ways to pay could be a huge sigh of relief for your shoppers. Adding a Buy Now, Pay Later option to your checkout page (and touting it on product pages) is a massive benefit over competitors that would require one huge payment at the time of checkout.

When it comes to flexible payment plans, 75% of consumers would be likely to make a purchase at a merchant that offered financing over one that didn’t. KlarnaAfterPayAffirm, and Sezzle are all BNPL platforms that bring comfort to customers who are still leery about spending this year.

Create opportunities for free shipping: As everyone who shops online knows, part of Amazon’s climb to No. 1 includes their infamous free shipping. It’s so popular, in fact, that it set a precedent for online shopping, and now 75% of consumers expect it. People will even spend an average of 30% more at checkout if they see free shipping is a given. 

As much as we all love free, the costs for shipping still have to come from somewhere.

(The costs come from you, dear merchant.)

Don’t sweat this expectation, though. There are many ways to offer free shipping that won’t eat up all your revenue. Tactics like setting minimum order amounts, working the costs into your prices, or running time-limited shipping promotions are all ways to delight your customers and stay conscious to their eye on their wallet. 

Strategy: Communicate with Clear and Consistent Messaging

Nearly all of these strategies have one thing in common: Be considerate of your shoppers this holiday season.

They’re under a lot of stress, and merchants that compound that stress with spotty communication, nonexistent protection, and cost-heavy shipping are only going to drive them to a competitor who’s a little more aligned with the holiday spirit. 

It’s crucial to keep communicating with anyone who comes to your site—customer or otherwise. Use website banners or a Hello Bar to communicate holiday promotions. This is also a prime time to relay important info about any shipping delays, inventory matters, weather issues, wildfires, or any other factor not directly in your control that could affect their experience.

Being upfront and transparent about any circumstances that could ruin the eggnog (err, interrupt their holiday shopping experience) shows shoppers that you’re a brand that cares and a brand they can trust way before they even buy from you.

Plus, the more information merchants can relay up front, the fewer customer support questions they’ll have to field later. This saves you time and money—which is great, because you’ll need both of those things as the holidays creep closer. 

The Evolution of Ecommerce Is Here to Stay

Even when the holidays have passed, the gifts have been opened, and the streets are lined with dried up Christmas trees come 2021, the vast and comprehensive evolution of ecommerce is here to serve our forever changed shopping behaviors.

A pandemic isn’t great and nobody likes it, but the adaptations pushed onto different industries like ecommerce might just be the push needed to further evolve the industry. Sellers that choose to treat this holiday season like any other will most likely find themselves falling behind the competition. 

Customers will grow to expect features like transparent and clear communication, timely issue resolution, real-time tracking, free shipping, etc., in their shopping experiences. Not adapting with the times could hurt your store for many holiday seasons to come—just look at the fates suffered by brick-and-mortar retailers that refused to adapt. 

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