Retailing During a Pandemic: Handling the Holidays

With the Covid-19 pandemic showing no signs of slowing down, retailers are bracing for a dynamic shift in holiday shopping habits. As customers attempt to minimize their exposure to the virus, high volume high traffic “sale days” may fall by the wayside this year. Add on top that retailers are dealing with capacity limits, lowered spending with many unemployed, as well as general supply problems and you’ve got a recipe for fourth quarter blues. How do you combat changes like this? We’ve compiled some tips that will help you succeed this fall and winter!

Holiday is Happening... It’s Mostly Online

If you’re waiting to roll out your big holiday marketing push, you’re late to the party. According to a recent survey from Affirm, who surveyed roughly 2000 Americans in September, nearly half of respondents said they had already started “holiday” shopping in preparation for December. As the pandemic leads consumers to reconsider reasons to risk exposure, many of those who started shopping are shopping exclusively online or checking online to make sure products are available before making a trip to the store.

Now is the time to beef up your online presence. Even if you don’t sell heavily online, consumers want an easy way to make sure the trip they’re making is worth it. VRGA members Eternity and Uptown Cow have worked with many small business owners to improve their web presence. Check the Eternity Blog and Uptown Cow’s Taco Tuesday feed for tips and tricks on how to build your online profile.

Every Day is a Sale Day


Ok, not EVERY day, don’t dilute the value of your products. But more days should be sale days this year, and they should come as early as possible. As mentioned before, in the current environment consumers aren’t going to want to walk packed streets or push through twenty other customers to fight for sale items. This year you can’t expect a crowd, you need to find ways to motivate shoppers.

Even without COVID the idea of a “big sale day” is something that consumers are increasingly just not that interested in. The same Affirm survey mentioned above found that seven out of 10 respondents are more likely to buy something on sale now (September at the time of the survey) than they are to wait for a major sale day like Black Friday. An increasing number of retailers are expanding their time table for sales to match this growing consumer demand for price reductions.

Consider having several “sale weekends” or “discount days” with a flat percentage off of certain product categories or even the entire store to capitalize on this. Start these events as soon as you can. Plan them out so that you have several “big sale” days a month. This allows customers to take their time, plan and do their holiday shopping when and how they want to. If you’re looking for a local model of how this works, Homeport in Downtown Burlington has adopted this method with several smaller sales throughout the next few months.

Communication is Key

Once you’ve taken that first big step and decided to change your holiday sale structure, you need people to know about it! This is going to be an extremely important check mark in shifting away from your usual “annual sale” game plan and it’s one that can be out of the wheelhouse for business owners.

As you’re looking at hiring for the holiday season, consider bringing on someone who can run your social media channels and run communications. While it may be difficult to see immediate returns with social media, management and spending, over time it can prove valuable as a way to promote in store events, disseminate sale information, and to interact directly with customers who then become attached to your brand. If you can’t afford to hire someone specifically for this task, see if you can find someone among your staff that would be interested in expanding their resume by taking on this project. There are tons of free resources available to help educate them: Score Vermont, The Center For Women & Enterprise, and Vermont SBA are some of our favorites for educational programming.

As you plan sale weekends, special discount days, etc you’ll want to map out a communication strategy. Conventional wisdom is to send out one to two mass emails a week to your mailing list. Let people know about upcoming sales, new products, and your seasonal change overs. Use language that encourages them to shop early: “Shop early and often”, “Don’t wait, you’ll be too late”, “the holidays are here already!”.

Take advantage of any exposure that you can. Work with local newspapers, radio stations, circulars, blogs, and other businesses to promote your upcoming events and discounts. Consider doing a facebook live stream, or an instagram story explaining the changes you’re making and how they’ll benefit customers moving forward. Frame it not just from a “business” perspective, but a safety one too. Avoiding large sales with packed stores is a service to the community as much as it is a boon for your business. Play that angle to get people on board!