‘Tis the Unseason. Shopping Change Is the New Normal

How brands should respond to the long holiday season in this very long year

The series of Target's 2020 holiday ads encourages togetherness as well as flash sales. Target

Retailers are facing probably the longest holiday season of all time. Some gift-buyers started in mid-October chiefly due to the pandemic significantly delaying Amazon Prime Day—and the shopping will continue for two more months. No one waits for Black Friday anymore.

But that’s not the biggest challenge brands have to overcome. The pandemic has accelerated shopping trends and customer expectations that must be met at scale. From a longer view, the industry is at an inflection point where new rules apply. It’s still all about the customer—just in different ways. Here is what retailers need to know.

The ‘un-season’ is here

In August, McKinsey reported that 75% of consumers were demonstrating new shopping behaviors. Change is the new normal in retail, and it’s having a dismantling effect on seasonality. For the past few years, shoppers have increased on-demand habits, gradually rendering old-school quarterly trend reports almost useless, while retailers try to adapt with incremental planning.

Social media has also been a huge factor in retail’s “un-seasoning,” impacting 74% of shoppers’ purchase decisions. Today’s on-demand shoppers have Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat and TikTok to show them what they need and when they need it. 

This trend is even evident in high fashion. The industry is accustomed to setting trends seasons in advance, where brands are increasingly adopting a see-now, buy-now business model. This year’s work-from-home loungewear craze and demand for masks had designers scurrying to respond. Consider the emergence of Valani, a buzzy women’s clothing startup that makes “season-less” attire to address consumer demand for environmentally-friendly fashion. It’s an un-seasonal phenomenon, with consumers leading brands instead of the other way around. 

To meet that challenge, retailers should look for micro-signals in real-time data and consider changing spending behaviors. Due to economic uncertainty, some shoppers across the country will have tighter budgets than usual, and others will be hardly spending at all. Retail marketing strategies right now should reflect a combination of available, granular intelligence, such as location data, and the larger economic forces in order to meet customers where they are now—even if it’s not normally where they would be this time of year.

‘Tar-jay’ leads the way

For most of this year due to Covid-19 and social movements, retailers have had to be extremely cautious with their message, else risk appearing overly sales-driven or tone-deaf. Many brands like Gap, Nike and Old Navy have responded to economic strain by offering budget-conscious customers 3% cash back on their holiday purchases via card-linked offers. Other tone-aware responses included brands donating large sums of money. For instance, Lego pulled advertising for police-related toys and reportedly donated $4 million to combat racism.

When can marketers stop holding their breath and do what they do best—i.e., create brilliant campaigns? Can it even be done this holiday season? During this un-seasonal era, it’s certainly a tricky balance.

Target’s “Black Friday Now” marketing is achieving such equilibrium on two levels. First, the Bulls Eye is essentially turning the holiday season into one long Black Friday by running flash sales from Thursday to Sunday throughout November. It’s a fantastic way to say: “Out with the old way and in with the new! We’re helping keep money in your pockets not just for one weekend, but throughout the month.”

Second, while other brands like Walmart and Best Buy are also releasing deals almost every week, Target’s holiday ad creative bookends the brand’s larger campaign superbly for these times. The spots are a genuinely fresh take on scenes of loved ones making gingerbread houses, decorating trees, exchanging presents and eating dinner. More importantly, it keeps the pandemic in perspective, as the campaign of 10 ads had the actors’ safety in mind. (They actually live together or have been individually isolating.)

Amy Vale is CMO of Dosh.