The coronavirus pandemic benefitted many merchants in 2020, bringing in a wave of ecommerce sales. But the pandemic and sales boom continue to be the source of new challenges throughout the retail industry. While it is only September, retailers are knee-deep readying themselves for the holiday season.

2020’s peak holiday season was a peak on top of a peak: ecommerce sales surged even more after a year of growing at unprecedented levels.  

U.S. shoppers spent $201.32 billion online during the season, up 45.2% from $138.65 billion in 2019, Digital Commerce 360 estimates. More than $1 in $4 spent on retail purchases for the period came from online orders—a sizeable jump in digital penetration. 

2020 was a stellar online holiday shopping season. But 2021 is a new year with its own set of challenges. A more open U.S. economy and vaccinated consumers armed with stimulus checks continue to fuel retail sales. But the world continues to grapple with the pandemic. Periodic manufacturing shutdowns, transportation backlogs and labor shortages have disrupted supply chains for months with no end in sight.  

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In “Will shipping supply chain obstacles stifle holiday sales? Digital Commerce 360’s fulfillment beat reporter James Melton details the headwinds merchants face within their supply chains and fulfillment operations and what that means for the holidays. 

One way merchants can circumvent last-mile shipping issues is with omnichannel services like buy online, pickup in store. “The omnichannel holiday hustle showcases several retailer examples and how each uses omnichannel to their advantage for the holiday season.  

In “Supply chain snarls put holidays at risk for Toy maker MGA,” MGA Entertainment CEO Isaac Larian discusses what these unprecedented supply chain challenges mean for its business, as the toy maker of L.O.L Surprise!, Bratz Dolls and Little Tikes relies on holiday sales.  

Early results from the Digital Commerce 360 holiday survey show that merchants are working hard to secure inventory now—at the start of Q3—by ordering more products than usual from their existing suppliers (36% of retailers) and 33% are ordering products from new suppliers. (Retailers could pick up more than one response.) The infographic “Retailer Insights:  Holiday Prep” shows more detailed results from this survey on how retailers are preparing for the holidays.  

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Another challenge retailers face this year is holiday hiring. While many merchants ramp up operations in their customer service and fulfillment centers during the peak season, retailers are finding that more challenging than ever to do this year. Several merchants weigh in on their strategies to adequately staff up this holiday season in “The peak season hiring push. 

Two other areas that merchants always need to keep top-of-mind during the holidays are website performance and marketing. From a performance perspective, several merchants share how they are ensuring their websites and backend systems are in top condition for the expected surges in traffic they will see around the Thanksgiving weekend in Keep it up: Why site performance matters.”  

In terms of marketing, retailers promoting the holidays seem to start earlier every year, and 2021 should be no different. In fact, 61% of retailers say they plan to begin their holiday marketing before Nov. 1, with 22% of them starting in July/August, according to the Digital Commerce 360 survey.  

Department store chain Macy’s Inc., which sent several “Black Friday in July” promotions throughout July, is an example of a retailer getting a jump on holiday marketing.   

Macy’s sent several promotional holiday emails in July.  

Macy’s sent several promotional holiday emails in July.

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And while that may seem early—shoppers are listening. During Prime Day 2021, which spanned two days June 21-22, 42% of Prime Day shoppers said at least some of their Amazon Prime Day purchases were gifts for the holidays, according to a Digital Commerce 360 survey of 505 U.S. online shoppers in June 2021. 

Senior consumer insights analyst Lauren Freedman shares more holiday marketing tactics in her column “Ho, Ho, Ho, are you ready for the holidays?”, based on multiple consumer surveys Digital Commerce 360 conducted over the past few months. One tactic it returns, and “Shoppers favor e-retailers that make returns free and easy” shares more reasons why merchants should give their return policy a second look. 

In 4 ways online merchants can prep for holiday shoppers,Digital Commerce 360’s digital editor Stephanie Crets summarizes tips from Forrester Research’s recent holiday prep report, along with supporting retailer examples of implementing these practices.  

The coronavirus pandemic benefitted many merchants in 2020, bringing in a wave of ecommerce sales. But the pandemic and sales boom continue to be the source of new challenges throughout the retail industry. While it is only August, retailers are knee-deep, readying themselves for the holiday season. This Strategy Insights issue 2021 Holiday Planning is packed with info to help merchants continue to prepare for a successful Q4 season amid another unprecedented year.  

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—April Berthene, Managing Editor at Digital Commerce 360  

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