More than half of retail sites offered a widespread sale on Tuesday to counter Amazon's annual event, and 8% announced extended returns windows to entice early seasonal shopping, according to Digital Commerce 360 data.

With about six weeks between Amazon.com Inc.’s Prime Day event and Thanksgiving weekend, which historically serves as the official kickoff to holiday shopping, many big merchants are using the retail giant’s 48-hour sales event as a launchpad to start peak season shopping.

Nearly a quarter—24%—of ecommerce sites for the largest North American online retailers displayed holiday messaging on Tuesday in a push to grab dollars earlier in Q4, a Digital Commerce 360 analysis shows.

Deals were touted as early Cyber Days promotions, and there were plenty of reminders to find holiday card-worthy outfits, search for the perfect Christmas tree, and stock up on toys and hosting essentials that were featured on retailers’ homepages and in devoted gift hubs elsewhere on their websites.

Digital Commerce 360 researchers visited the sites of the top 100 North American online retailers ranked in the 2020 Top 1000 on Tuesday morning, when Prime Day kicked off, and tracked big sales, marketing that played directly off of Amazon Prime Day, holiday gifting language or imagery and extended holiday return policies. Data collected shows a sizable number of retailers are capitalizing on the influx of web traffic from deal-seekers who are comparison-shopping with non-Amazon merchants by tempting consumers with big sales and nudging earlier gift buying.

The strategy makes sense despite the fact that even Halloween is still two-and-a-half weeks away. Prime Day, which is typically held in the summer but was postponed until this week due to the pandemic, is an increasingly recognized retail holiday. Due to its proximity to the Cyber 5 period (Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday) this year, shoppers are already more primed for seasonal spending. But retailers are also needing to incentivize earlier holiday buying to help shipping carriers spread out deliveries for peak times as they’re already struggling to keep up with COVID-19-related surges in ecommerce.

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According to data from Digital Commerce 360’s site visits, 51% of the top 100 online retailers offered widespread sales on Tuesday beyond normal promotions that are run year-round. The deep discounts are urging consumers to get a jump on holiday shopping.

This year, more than one-third of shoppers—39%—will begin making holiday purchases by the end of October, according to a Digital Commerce 360 and Bizrate Insights survey of 1,000 consumers in September 2020. That’s up from 27% in 2019.

Additionally, 42% of consumers said they will shop earlier knowing that delivery times may be longer this year as shipping carriers are overburdened with the spikes in online ordering as people avoid crowded stores during the pandemic, according to the survey. 48% of shoppers intend to make half or more of their online holiday gift purchases on Amazon, which is up from 40% in 2019.

Amazon prompts holiday shopping

Amazon (No. 1 in the Top 1000) prominently positioned gift giving on its homepage on Tuesday. In the carousel at the top, one rotating image read, “Get a head start on gifts: Shop Prime Day deals now” between floating snowflakes and wrapped presents. There was a “find a gift” header in Amazon’s menu bar, and a “deals on gifts” section also appeared along the left side of the homepage, with thumbnails devoted to home, electronics and fashion gifts as well as a holiday toy list.Nearly a quarter of Top 100 online retailers promote holiday gifting on sites during Amazon Prime Day - Amazon homepage

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Once consumers navigated to the gift center, the holiday-themed hero image read, “Wrap up your list with deals & more,” and shoppers could filter by category, Prime Day deals or gift wrap availability. On the page, Amazon also highlighted its Prime member exclusive promotion for a $10 credit with the purchase of $40 in Amazon gift cards.

Nearly a quarter of Top 100 online retailers promote holiday gifting on sites during Amazon Prime Day - Amazon holiday catalog

Amazon’s holiday guide began arriving in shoppers’ mailboxes during Prime Day.

In contrast, Amazon didn’t use any holiday gifting language on its homepage during last year’s Prime Day, according to a number of archived snapshots of Amazon.com from the sales event in July 2019. While that year-to-year change could largely be attributed to the summer- and back-to-school-focused timing of Prime Day 2019 versus a much later fall promotional period this year, Amazon still hadn’t embraced holiday messaging or imagery by Oct. 13, 2019. Amazon promoted a section of “fun, low-price gifts” with just one thumbnail and offered a “unique gift” finder on its homepage, but neither was specifically geared toward the holidays.

Additionally, many consumers received Amazon’s holiday gift guide, or its “holiday wish book,” in the mail during the Prime Day event. This year, there seems to be a much more concerted holiday strategy earlier in the calendar for the retail giant.

Retailers’ Prime Day messaging gets merry

23 other top retailers also were integrating seasonal language and imagery into their ecommerce sites Tuesday and prompting shoppers to check out gift guides.

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Here’s how merchants hinted to consumers that it’s almost that time of year:

  • Qurate Retail Group (No. 9): The mass merchant advertised its “Deal Reveal” promotion, which was offering new clearance sale prices every six hours, along with a snowflake-sprinkled message that, “It’s deals season—and you’ll find a whole lot of cheer right here.” A section on the homepage read, “Our one-stop gifting shop: Find lots of inspo” with images for “retro delights,” “personalized picks,” “pop culture presents” and “inspirational finds.”
  • Best Buy Co. Inc. (No. 10): The consumer electronics chain promised Black Friday prices were guaranteed with a link to shop select holiday deals now on the homepage. The deal ends Oct. 14. A gift ideas section in the navigation brings shoppers to a page with Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa date reminders and areas to shop for gifts by recipient (i.e. him, her, kids, teens, families or grandparents), price range or from featured lists by area of interest (i.e. tech, gamers, foodies, travelers, toys, teachers, stocking stuffers, etc.). Best Buy also prominently displayed options for its curbside or store pickup, which are ready in one hour; same-day delivery, which gets orders to a shopper’s doorstep by 9 p.m. if ordered by 1 p.m.; and free next-day delivery on thousands of items.
  • Macy’s Inc. (No. 14): In the menu bar, the department store offered a “holiday gift guide” with options to shop for gifts by price or recipient as well as by idea (i.e. beauty gift sets, toys, candy and gourmet food, etc.). The page also features a section that read, “Staying home for the holidays?” with a “Play reindeer games” section showing board games, “Deck every hall” area spotlighting seasonal evergreen table decor and “Dress your best” image with a family wearing matching holiday pajamas.
  • Lowe’s Cos. Inc. (No. 22): The home improvement retailer promoted a “gift zone” front and center on its homepage and featured holiday decor and Christmas trees.
  • J.C. Penney Co. Inc. (No. 31): The department store chain splashed a “Cyber Days” deal across the top of its homepage, offering 30% off with thousands of items up to 60% through Oct. 14 and nudging shoppers to “Kick off your holiday shopping early & save big!” The bright red hero image included blinking Christmas lights and a countdown clock to the end of the sale. The homepage also touted a gift shop and “Penney’s Playland,” a section devoted to toy brands including Disney, Fisher-Price, Barbie, and Melissa & Doug.2020 Amazon Prime Day - J.C. Penney
  • Overstock.com Inc. (No. 42): The web-only retailer’s homepage offered an extra 10% off of select early Christmas items and showcased a “shop Christmas essentials” section as part of its large anniversary sale. Once shoppers clicked into the latter, they were brought to a holiday hub featuring gift ideas, top-rated trees with a Tannenbaum buying guide and more than a dozen seasonal categories (i.e. ornaments, tree skirts, lights, nutcrackers and figurines, stockings, wreaths and garland, etc.). They also could shop by price range and read holiday home decorating tips.2020 Amazon Prime Day - Overstock
  • Carter’s Inc. (No. 86): The children’s clothing brand offered $6 and up doorbusters for “festive dress up, cozy jammies + more” and also promoted up to 40% off for “Holiday card prep,” encouraging shoppers to “Grab sweet holiday styles for your front porch photoshoot.”2020 Amazon Prime Day - Carter's
  • The Walt Disney Company Ltd. (No. 89): The Disney merchandise store suggested shoppers “Get a holly, jolly head start to the season” and to “Make your home merry & bright” on its homepage with Christmas wreaths and character-adorned seasonal throw pillows. Disney animators’ dolls, talking action figures, figure play sets and more were on sale under the limited-time “Early holideals: Shop early, save big” event.2020 Amazon Prime Day - Disney

Merchants smart to kick off season now

Experts say this year’s late Prime Day will disrupt the traditional holiday calendar and diminish the importance of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Randy Mercer, vice president of global product management at consulting firm 1WorldSync, says consumers started their seasonal spending during Amazon’s two-day sale.

“After the event ends, it’s likely that shopping will continue at a steady cadence instead of peaking again in late November and December,” he says. “While many retailers pushed forward with their own promotions during Prime week, their goal is to simply catch up with demand after suffering supply chain problems over the past few months. With delivery networks and mail carriers already saturated with millions of deliveries, retailers will try to spread out offerings and holiday promotions, giving time for operations to recoup and stay on track until Christmas Day.”

Michael Brown, partner in the consumer products and retail practice at consulting firm Kearney, agrees and says it’s critical for retailers kick off the season now—especially since a potential second wave of the pandemic could result in more store closures. Current store occupancy restrictions, shipping capacity shortage, and questions about whether the workforce will remain healthy and if suppliers will be able to ship in-demand goods mean the next few months will be “a rollercoaster,” he says.

“Retailers need to strike while they have the opportunity, [and those] that start early will capture consumer spending while those consumers have the funds and the ability to shop freely,” Brown says. “They will also get a read on what consumers are shopping for compared to years past, and early reads will allow them to chase goods for December sales and act quickly to sell the slower selling categories where they have built inventory.”

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Return deadlines extended to encourage early holiday shopping

Eight retailers of the top 100 ecommerce sites visited—or 8%—were already marketing extended holiday return windows. The move is aimed at combatting potential reluctance from consumers who are considering checking off their gift lists early but worried about recipients getting stuck with unwanted items.

Here’s how those retailers are accommodating early holiday shoppers:

  • Amazon: Most items shipped between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31 are eligible for returns through Jan. 31, 2021.
  • Qurate: Any holiday gift purchased from Sept. 12 through Dec. 24 can be returned for any reason for a refund of the purchase price less shipping and handling and a return label until Jan. 31, 2021.
  • Best Buy: Purchases made from Oct. 13 through Jan. 2, 2021, have an extended return window through Jan. 16, 2021. Items with a third-party contract like cell phones, holiday decorations and major appliances are excluded.
  • Macy’s: Items ordered from now through Dec. 31 can be returned at least until Jan. 31, 2021.
  • Office Depot Inc. (No. 20): The office supplies retailer had a “Depot Discount Days” event with up to 60% off that ends Oct. 15, and any item purchased between Oct. 1 and Dec. 24 can be returned through at least Jan. 14, 2021.
  • Kohl’s Corp. (No. 21): Customers typically have 180 days to return any item, excluding premium electronics, which only have a 30-day return window. But the chain’s “special” holiday return policy this year allows for premium electronics purchased between Nov. 1 and Dec. 25 to be returned through Jan. 31, 2021.
  • Gap Inc. (No. 23): For items purchased between Nov. 1 and Dec. 24, the apparel retailer is offering extended returns through at least Jan. 15, 2021.
  • TJX Cos. Inc. (No. 62): The parent of sportswear retailer Sierra allows for purchases from Oct. 11 through Dec. 24 to be returned through Jan. 24, 2021.
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