This probably isn’t the first time you’ve been warned about peak season. Media coverage of last year’s holiday season had consumers buying earlier than ever and carriers hiking prices in anticipation of historic volume, but as it turned out there wasn’t really much of a problem. All three of the largest U.S. carriers posted similar or slightly better on-time delivery rates than during the 2019 peak, despite 2020’s holiday season being the busiest on record.
But this year will be different, for real.
It won’t be different in terms of volume – that is still projected to reach record-shattering numbers. But many retailers weren’t expecting a second consecutive year of unprecedented volume alongside continuing supply chain breakdowns, and that’s led to shortages of everything from sneakers to coffee makers.
To help consumers parse through the complex landscape of holiday shopping in 2021, Modern Shipper sat down with Elaine Kwon, co-founder and managing partner of e-commerce consulting service Kwontified, where part of her job is advising retailers when and how they plan their holiday deals and discounts.
Here are five tips she has for shoppers this holiday season:
1. Expect less emphasis to be placed on Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals
One major trend Kwon predicts is around the two “pre-holidays,” Black Friday and Cyber Monday. During a typical, pre-COVID holiday season, she said, just about every retailer would plan their deals and discounts around that time, resulting in a convergence of deals around the same days.
But with supply chain issues causing delays and wildly fluctuating inventory levels, retailers this year will spread out their special offers in an attempt to avoid their bestsellers going out of stock too early.
“I think this holiday season is going to present the most diverse range of deals as well as peak shopping consumer behavior trends as we’ve ever had in recent memory,” Kwon told Modern Shipper.
As part of her job with Kwontified, Kwon often spends time in the very boardrooms where these deals and discounts are planned. According to her, retailers are saying that “the Thanksgiving period” – the five days around Thanksgiving that include Black Friday and Cyber Monday – will still be a big time for deals but they also plan on offering more deals throughout peak season.
2. That being said, you should still try to buy before Black Friday
Yes, there will be more deals than normal this year on days that are not Black Friday. But at the same time, inventory issues are currently a huge thorn in the side of retailers.
“If there’s one thing we know for sure this year, it’s that a lot of shipments that were supposed to arrive in August didn’t arrive until late September. And there are shipments that [were] supposed to arrive [in late September] that likely are now getting pushed out to late November,” Kwon explained. “And so with that, there’s no guarantee that a product that you see in stock right now is going to still be in stock if you wait until Black Friday.”
Retailers are well aware of this, which is why many of them are offering deals earlier than they ever have to incentivize shoppers to buy while products are in stock. Amazon, for example, launched its annual Epic Deal Days in the first week of October, the earliest date the company has ever rolled out its holiday promotions by far.
Typically Amazon will target the week of Thanksgiving for its Epic Deal Days, but Kwon, who formerly headed a division of Amazon Fashion, said the massive online marketplace is dealing with unprecedented shortages, just like any other retailer.
She said even Amazon agrees that “if you see something that you want, get it now. They are trying their best to work with their vendors and their brands to inbound as much product as possible. But they cannot change the fact that harvesting is down, transportation is delayed and product sourcing has gone up and is much more costly, and therefore has resulted in lower supply.”
According to Kwon, the supply chain doesn’t discriminate – shortages will arise in every product category, from gourmet grocery to beauty products to outdoor goods. She said that retailers’ bestselling products will be hit the hardest, despite brands ordering more of them, due to shipping delays.
3. Communicate with your favorite brands
This season’s schedule of holiday deals and discounts will be unorthodox, to say the least, which is why Kwon also suggests that shoppers get in touch with the retailers from which they plan on buying. Unsurprisingly, brands want their shoppers to know when deals and discounts will happen, which makes communication via email or some other method a good way to stay in the loop.
On this point, Kwon also has some advice for retailers: Be as transparent as possible. By that she means that they should communicate any shortages or delays to customers in order to build trust and incentivize them to keep coming back.
“I think adopting a practice like that would not only help set the customer’s expectation – so they know that they can come back and they’re not just hopelessly waiting and wondering whether [the product] might be available again – but they also know that they can put it on their calendars and come back and check it out when the time arrives,” she explained.
Kwon cites Amazon as an example of this: On an Amazon product page, the website will inform shoppers how many units are in stock or when the next shipment will arrive. That way, shoppers know what to expect and they can better plan their purchases on the marketplace.
4. Don’t be afraid to shop in stores
Last year’s holiday season marked an e-commerce explosion. On Cyber Monday in 2020, customers spent nearly $11 billion, making it the single biggest day of e-commerce sales in U.S. history. That being said, physical stores still exist, and there could be some sneaky deals hiding among the shelves.
Usually, Kwon explained, brands try to keep their online and in-store inventories synchronized, but supply chain disruptions have thrown that out the window. The reality this year is that in-store and online shoppers might have entirely different experiences when it comes to the products, deals and discounts available to them.
“If you’re looking for something, call the stores in addition to checking online because it’s not going to be a consistent experience,” Kwon said.
Particularly in the case of major retailers, shopping in-store can be a great way to find products that are out of stock online, of which there will likely be many.
5. Keep an eye on prices – they could rise as the holiday peak approaches
According to Kwon, the level of strain on retailers due to supply chain disruptions could lead to them raising prices for consumers. She doesn’t anticipate a significant pricing hike until Q1 2022, but she warns that brands are beginning to trend in that direction.
“Brands and retailers are trying their best to maintain prices to customers and not pass costs on to them, as much as possible,” she said. “However, I would not be surprised if come Q1 2022, we start seeing increasing prices across the board, just because there’s no way for [retailers] to survive without having to do that.”
Kwon believes that price increases, if they happen at all, are a few months out, but in the short term, some retailers’ fears could lead them to be more hesitant to offer deals and discounts.
“[Retailers] still want to honor the expectations of consumers, so a lot of them, if not all of them, are still trying to figure out ways to provide a discount. But it’s very difficult,” she explained. “They’re absolutely taking a bet because, frankly, if this holiday season doesn’t go spectacularly for some of them, we may see a shrinkage in the number of brands and retailers that exist even going into next year.”
According to Kwon, retailers will fight to hold off on increasing prices during the holiday season, but they are contending with shortages and shipping costs that are putting massive pressure on their margins. The hope for shoppers is that prices remain stable, but as time goes on, it will become more and more difficult for brands to deliver.