Planning for a Hard-to-Plan-for 2020 Holiday Season

July 21, 2020 | 8 minute read
Clint Kaiser
Head of Analytic & Strategic Services, Oracle Digital Experience Agency
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Most major B2C brands and retailers will start planning for the 2020 holiday season soon, if they haven’t started already. Under normal circumstances, it’s challenging to accurately forecast, diligently plan, and effectively execute your holiday marketing campaigns. This year, with expectations of a second wave of coronavirus outbreaks and restrictions, the possibility of countries around the world slipping into recession, and global supply chains disrupted, it will be extra challenging.

Regardless, this year’s holiday marketing goal is the same as any other year: Every company must do their best to plan based on the information they have and then be flexible as possible to in case circumstances call for adjustments along the way so they can maximize their holiday sales.

Based on research and analysis performed by Oracle CX Marketing Consulting, here are the trends that will most impact the 2020 holiday season:

Significant risks to the customer experience

The White House is preparing for a second wave of coronavirus infections this fall, so you should too, especially given the disruptions we saw during the first wave to both retail outlets and supply chains. While your operations and supply chain teams may be working other angles, marketing should prepare as well. 

Imagine if the challenges in order delivery that happened during early spring recur over the holidays when online buying volume spikes. Already strained transportation and delivery systems would be further stressed, which could open up the possibility of countrywide delays at a time when a day late may be too late. And failing to deliver in time for Christmas or Hanukkah can be costly for your company and brand. It means added calls and emails for your customer service team, as well as more of your first-time buyers becoming one-time buyers. It would likely also cost you some of your long-term loyal customers.

In light of all that, take these key considerations for your plan to heart:

1. Encourage early gift buying

When examining past holiday trends, we saw email volume shift higher earlier in 2019 than it did in 2018. That earlier push also drove a shift in revenue. This year, an earlier shift will be even more important.

November 11, Veterans Day in the US, is a huge shopping day in Asia, where it’s known as Singles’ Day. In 2019, Singles’ Day revenue was bigger than Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined. Oracle Responsys saw a 38% jump in email volume year-over-year for that day in 2019. We expect another large jump this year, as it’s a perfect day to build around, even as a broader gift giving promotional day. 

Less certain is the effect that Amazon’s Prime Day will have on holiday shopping. The event usually takes place in July, but has been postponed until October (as of publication) due to the coronavirus. The exact date isn’t likely to be announced until late August. Is it possible for holiday gift buying to be pulled that early into the year? Based on historical trends, it’s highly likely that this consumer behavior shift continues this year as shoppers take advantage of the heavy discounting provided during Prime Day. “Counter-programming” is advised for this event. 

Encouraging earlier gift buying will help reduce the risk of losing share of wallet. Given current economic conditions and impact to consumer confidence and spending abilities, eMarketer is projecting consumers will spend 10% less with retailers this year during one of the tightest consumer spending periods in decades. This greater competition for every dollar means it’s important to get out front. 

2. Closely align with your merchandising team

As you plan campaigns and recognize the possibility of fulfillment issues, think about helpful customer messaging. For instance, consider what happens if the traditional “last day for free shipping” isn’t actually an option this year because it won’t get there in time. Are you ready to promote e-gift cards earlier if necessary? Should you provide customers a mix of ready-made, printable gift certificates they can choose and personalize for the gift recipient? Contingency plans that help reduce potential customer frustration are important. 

3. Promote the benefits of BOPUC (Buy Online Pick Up Curbside)

If that’s an option for you, promote it as the safest way to ensure purchases arrive in time. Promote it regionally to adapt to local restrictions or to better leverage store inventories in fulfilling online orders.

Many consumers have tried BOPUC for the first time this year. Use that knowledge to target BOPUC promotions and messaging. Consider a promotion that gives away something special for using that service, especially to encourage more first-time users to give it a try. 

Mobile will continue to grow in importance

During the 2019 holiday season, mobile visits to retail sites comprised 58% of traffic, which was up 14% year over year, according to ADI. Given the reluctance and potential inability of many shoppers to go into stores, we expect both overall traffic and the percent associated with mobile to increase.  

Recognizing that for some shoppers it will be their first foray into shopping online with you, what do you need to keep in mind to create the best user experience, so customers keep coming back? Here’s our advice:

1. Pretend you’re a new customer

If you haven’t done so in a while, go step-by-step through your website and app buying experience on an iOS- and Android-powered smartphone. This is important to do on a regular basis. Reviewing this with a fresh eye is often enlightening, and sometimes you’ll find elements of the experience that have broken or aged poorly. 

Alternately, consider having a friend or family member who has never gone through the process do it—especially if they fall into the “non-traditional customer” segment for you. Gauge feedback for where there were stumbles or hurdles, and then evaluate the importance of prioritizing adjustments. 

2. Don’t forget customer communications

It’s not just the website experience but also the post-purchase and new customer welcome experience that should be evaluated. Whether it’s email, SMS, push, or a mix of these, look at each with a critical eye for their helpfulness and even relevance given what may be the current state of affairs during the holiday season. Are you setting the right expectations for delivery? Are you directing them to the best channels to ask questions or check their order status? Is your imagery and language tone-appropriate to the times? 

3. Fast track some of those mobile experience to-dos. 

You may have long had certain items on your to-do list, such as improving the readability of your mobile app or mobile website, improving your ADA compliance, or running a variety of A/B tests to optimize your imagery, copy, and other elements. Start working your way through that list so you can reap the benefits of an improved mobile experience this holiday season.

For instance, we recently ran a test for a retailer comparing clothing worn on a model versus laid flat out. The laid-out version generated 19% more revenue than the on-model one. This was a valuable learning for them, and one that will help them boost their performance this holiday season.

Ultimately, you want to keep the overall user experience in mind from clear navigation to readability to clarity on what to do next. While consumers will continue to shop via their laptops and desktops, Oracle Responsys data has not shown any shift away from mobile use during the stay-at-home orders or as more employees work-from-home. Mobile will hold its own and more during holiday.  

Communication will be even more important

While we’ve learned a lot about how the coronavirus has impacted email behavior and how the pandemic has changed consumer preferences, it’s difficult to predict what life will be like during the last three months of this year. It will be essential to be prepared to clearly and quickly communicate with customers to reduce confusion and frustration, whether through additional modules in your emails or through standalone crisis messages. This is likely to be particularly critical for companies with physical goods and for brick-and-mortar stores. 

Consider reviewing and planning for the following types of messaging:

1. Instructions for how to do things—even things that are “simple” or haven’t changed 

The pandemic has upended business as usual and introduced many new concepts to consumers. For this holiday season, don’t make any assumptions. For example, spell out how to buy online and pick up curbside (BOPUC). Even if your store times haven’t changed, make those clear. If there are limitations on the number of people allowed in your stores or special hours for seniors, for instance, be sure to explain those. There’s also value in steering customers toward times when waits tend to be shorter at your stores.

2. Your return and exchange policy

Will exchanges or returns be allowed? Will that information be on the gift receipt? To ensure no surprises, communicate this type of information as clearly as possible during and after the purchase. 

3. Shipping status questions

If there are questions on shipping status that can’t be handled by the shipping firm, what’s the best channel to manage these through? Can you proactively try to avoid overwhelming your call center staff? Consider promoting online chat, social, or other options that are still timely but more manageable from a workflow perspective for the customer service team. 

4. Over communicate with your transactional messages. 

These can be workhorses for you this year. Consider changing the subject line to ensure they are read. Oftentimes these emails are not opened because the recipient assumes that they know what’s included and can read all must-know information in the subject line. Consider changing “Thank You for Your Order” to something more like “Important Information About Your Order - Please Read.” This sets up your email to not only confirm their order, but to set their expectations going forward and provide them with details on how to find more information. 

5. Have several generic templates ready. Templates will allow for maximum flexibility when communications need to go out fast. The design can be simple, with little to no imagery even—like we saw with crisis messaging in March about store closures. It’s more about speed. Think through all the various situations in which you might need to send out a message rapidly and consider pulling together all your past emergency emails, so you have an archive of inspiration to pull from.

How you can start getting ready now

Needless to say, everyone’s crystal balls are foggy at best. Being nimble and adaptable will be key to preparation. What can you do now? 

Analyze last year. While this year will have some vastly different elements, it’s still important to understand what worked and what didn’t for you last holiday season from a content, timing, and process perspective. Do a thorough holiday post-mortem and call out key learnings that you can put to work this year.

Re-engage ahead of holiday. If you are looking to re-engage dormant portions of your audience, it’s best to do that in the August/September timeframe. This will allow a conservative approach to mailing your less engaged audience and mitigate risks of exposure to deliverability issues during holiday. 

Review and re-think your new-to-file plan. If all goes well, this holiday season will be one in which you acquire a large number of new email subscribers. Similar to how we advised you to experience your buying process firsthand above, sign up for your email program and see what that welcoming and onboarding process is like. Think about what you want new customers and new subscribers to know. How has that changed since you last reviewed your process?

Test new strategies. This holiday season likely won’t afford extra cycles for heavy testing. Select two or three insights you’d like to learn about ahead of the holidays and bake those into your testing schedule now. Here are our top recommendations of areas to explore ahead of holidays. 

Map out priorities. Based on the list of considerations highlighted here, there is a lot to plan for. Your business may have unique qualities where your supply chain is a non-issue. Or perhaps you’ve already thoroughly vetted and optimized your online experience. Look at the factors in flux discussed here and review implications they may have on your business so you can create that prioritization list to set yourself up for success for holiday! 

Want more holiday planning advice? Check out some of our other posts, reports, and on-demand webinars:


Need help with your holiday marketing planning? Oracle CX Marketing Consulting has more than 500 of the leading marketing minds ready to help you to achieve more this holiday season, including Strategic & Analytic Services, Creative Services, and Email Deliverability Services teams.

Learn more or reach out to us at

For more insights into B2C marketing, check out Oracle CX Marketing.


Clint Kaiser

Head of Analytic & Strategic Services, Oracle Digital Experience Agency

Clint Kaiser is the Head of the Analytic & Strategic Services team at Oracle Digital Experience Agency. His background in the email marketing space includes 20 years of experience with ESPs and digital agencies. His analytical approach to driving change in digital marketing is reflected in his quantitative approach to improving clients' business outcomes.

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