Retail 2021: what to expect this holiday season

Crowd anxiety. Political climate. Regional health mandates. Labor shortages. Supply chain disruptions. All factors that will make 2021’s brick-and-mortar Black Friday an uncertainty. Faced with rising millennial purchasing power and lockdowns that spurred all generations to purchase online, your commerce website must be ready to handle an influx of Q4 shoppers.

If you want to prepare for and thrive this Q4, you’re going to need to develop a keen understanding of how your particular product and industry fit into the post-COVID retail economy. And you’ll need to invest in a flexible ecommerce infrastructure.

Labor Shortages

Labor shortages will impact holiday season 2021

Labor shortages have slowed down retail, manufacturing, and the supply chain worldwide—all of which could make Black Friday infeasible for many sellers.

Unfilled job openings are reaching record numbers. In April 2021, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a record 9.3 million job openings. Great news for job hunters, but a massive hurdle for the anticipated Q4 workload in retail and connected industries.

Anemic staffing for Black Friday and Cyber Monday will present a challenge for retailers. Filling retail jobs will be difficult throughout 2021, with retail workers exiting in record numbers (more than 640,000 in the US in April 2021 alone). Finding seasonal sales, cleaning, and security staff to cover Black Friday will be an even greater challenge.

Online sellers will have a similar shortage. However, many ecommerce processes can be automated in a way that brick-and-mortar simply can’t replicate, giving online sellers yet another marketplace advantage.

There are methods to mitigate some of this manufacturing uncertainty. Stay connected with your manufacturers or suppliers, so you know when shortages may be coming or reaching critical levels for inventory you need the most. And consider diversifying your product lines, specifically sourcing from different manufacturers—and even countries—to protect your supply line.

Lastly, consider the effect of a labor shortage from a supply-and-demand angle. Those jobs that can be filled in retail and manufacturing will likely command higher salaries, further eroding margins.

Direct to consumer brands steal consumers from brick-and-mortar

Increased online shopping during the pandemic taught many ecommerce brands to go direct-to-consumer (D2C). Fewer people in stores meant huge brick-and-mortar storefronts weren’t crucial for brands to move their products. Why rely on someone else’s website when you can promote your own?

For D2C brands, focusing on independent ecommerce success means wider margins and more sales, if your ad spend is up to the challenge. Nike, Lululemon, Chewy, PepsiCo, and Levi’s have all pivoted their marketing and outreach toward digital experiences and digital shoppers because of this very trend (which likely won’t change in the near future).

All this is good news for D2C brands that can successfully increase their social spend, but puts brick-and-mortar shops at risk of supply shortages and shrinking selection on Black Friday.

Online shopping is gaining popularity

Retail brands preparing for holiday 2021 can’t rely on less tech-savvy consumers to prop up their brick-and-mortar shops. In the past year, online shopping has become just as popular as in-store shopping. In fact, millenials and boomers shopped online more than in-store, with boomers outpacing all other generations when it came to online shopping in 2021.

The pandemic cranked up social media exposure. Increased usage of social media during the pandemic—and thus, increased exposure to social media marketing—is also a part of the equation.

Ready your infrastructure for 2021 and beyond

Your strategies, marketing efforts, and ability to hit your targets are all tied to infrastructure. So, let your technology be an enabler, not an inhibitor. While not the most glamourous budget allocation, infrastructure provides a foundational launchpad for your commerce business. Getting your team and your infrastructure ready for whatever comes your way on Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and beyond can help ensure a calm, cool, collected, and profitable Q4 2021.

Align your website infrastructure and marketing investments

Align your website infrastructure investment and marketing spend, so your online shop isn’t derailed by your smashing success. Heavily promoting your Black Friday programs and offers would be a waste if your website isn’t equipped to handle the increase in traffic.

Load tests: your new best friends. While most modern tools can predict customer traffic with relative accuracy, 2021’s ecommerce success will hinge upon being able to support a welcomed onslaught of traffic. To prepare for Black Friday and Cyber Monday, you’ll need to do a few practice runs first. Frequent front-end performance testing will measure resources, scalability, speed, and reliability. Regular load-testing will help you gauge your site’s response to sudden spikes in traffic and enable you to find your system’s bottlenecks. Thorough stress tests that emulate extreme Black Friday conditions can help your team get ready for whatever will unfold.

An ecommerce platform like Platform.sh can handle scaling, load-testing, and constant monitoring, freeing your dev team to work on more exciting features and changes.

Prepare for fast, steady deployments of holiday updates

Logistical problems in 2021 are going to hurt ecommerce websites that aren’t able to quickly deploy changes to products, features, inventory, and pricing multiple times a day.

Be prepared to deploy on Friday. Historically, developers have agreed that you should never deploy on Friday. Well, seemingly bad news: Black Friday is on a Friday. And many regions (Europe, for example) have laws about when promotions can go into effect, meaning deploying on Friday is essentially required by law.

In an interview with Platform.sh Customer Solutions Director Guillaume Moigneu, he shared a firsthand account of how tricky Black Friday deployment can be.

You're launching your Black Friday sales at a specific time. You've got email and Facebook promotions staged, so you need to coordinate and launch everything at the same time. That means you’re going to make a lot of changes on your website at 9:00 AM on Black Friday, for example. Last year, we had a large retailer deploy 10 times on Black Friday.

That means your retail platform must be reliable, and you must have increasingly flexible systems to accommodate rapidly evolving customer expectations.

Deploy confidently and repeatedly to achieve success in Q4 2021. If your development team doesn’t have the bandwidth for those deployments, then adopting a Platform-as-a-Service can increase efficiency and save time—preserving your valuable dev resources for building innovative customer experiences that create evangelists for your brand.

Bridge the gap between ecommerce and brick-and-mortar shopping

To succeed as we collectively emerge from the pandemic, every retailer—including pure brick-and-mortar—should incorporate the digital customer services that shoppers have come to expect during the pandemic.

Curbside pickup: of course. Whether it’s called curbside pickup, drive-up, click-and-collect, or buy-online-pick-up-in-store (BOPIS), consumers now demand omnichannel services that connect online retail and in-store shopping.

Handling the logistics of online/in-store purchases. Systems flexibility remains key in delivering the integrated shopping experiences customers expect. The rising popularity of BOPIS and curbside pickup means you need to be prepared to quickly and efficiently deploy these capabilities, reliably linking your inventory between retail and online stores.

Communicate infrastructure changes internally

Remote teams are here to stay in one form or another. Even as the pandemic winds down in some regions, remote or hybrid workplaces seem like they’re here to stay. By Q4 2021, many teams will still be working remotely or in a hybrid model. Strong policies around communication and accountability can help your business stay on top.

Conquering communication with remote teams is about following the data. No, you can’t physically summon everyone to the conference room in the morning to discuss the launch of a new product line or drop by someone’s desk to share a shift in priorities. Remote communication success should be broken down into actionable steps:

  1. Collect data. Regularly survey your remote employees about how they feel communication is going, where they communicate best, and what policies aren’t working.
  2. Evaluate the data. If everyone in the survey expresses frustration with the company’s messenger app, change it. Is there a certain time of day employees prefer meeting? Or a certain time of day they absolutely need for quiet, focused work?
  3. Reassess. When you’ve made changes, let them run and then send another employee survey. Has communication improved? Survey engagement? If it has, fantastic, keep going. If it hasn’t, go back to step one: collecting data.

Finally, provide a single source of truth for all communication. Everyone working on your teams knows where to look for policies, memos, and new feature launches. Enforce one place for all communication, and be dogmatic about it.

When communication breaks down, have a platform you can rely on. No matter how prepared we are, communication in a remote team (or any team) will hit a snag. When things go awry this Black Friday and Cyber Monday, you’ll need a platform that allows changes to be made (and rolled back) without breaking your entire website.

Features like instant cloning let everyone on your dev team work on or test their own copy of the production application stack. This approach can help mitigate any communication issues by allowing individual team members to work on a new feature or run load tests without disrupting anyone else’s work.

Outsource the infrastructure work you don’t want to deal with

The success of 2021’s holiday season will depend on understanding evolving consumer behavior, ecommerce experience, communication, and infrastructure in a post-pandemic world.

Achieving this level of agility may be a challenge, but one that’s worth the time and effort you put into preparing your team and elevating your brand.

If you want to focus your dev firepower on the shopping experience you’re building and leave the technical challenges to someone else, leverage Platform.sh hosting, automation, monitoring, and cloud platform services this Black Friday.