Tectonic consumer shifts give brands holiday headaches

Campaign Savvy wordmark with headshot of Campaign US editor Alison Weissbrott

Between supply chain backups, inflation and the Omicron variant, advertisers are in for another rocky holiday season.

Q4 used to be the time when marketers would push what was left of their annual budgets into holiday marketing bonanzas.

Consumers would rush to stores on Black Friday for blowout sales and continue to shop right through to December 25. Those who preferred to shop online had Cyber Monday deals to look forward to.

Marketers could reliably plan ahead and project sales and inventory for what was nearly guaranteed to be their biggest sales period of the year. The world was neat and tidy.

Then the pandemic happened, and two years later we are still stuck in a mess of uncertainty. New variants continue to pop up and send parts of the world back into lockdown, further disrupting an already battered global supply chain.

This is not only causing pricing inflation, it’s also leading people to start holiday shopping earlier than ever in expectation of shipping delays. More broadly, it's forever reshaping consumer habits that marketers have been able to take for granted for decades.

Just look at Black Friday sales. What was historically the biggest shopping day of the year delivered muted results. Retail store traffic dropped 28% year over year, while online sales declined slightly to $8.9 billion from $9 billion in 2020, according to Adobe Analytics.

Cyber Monday, which has become a bigger spending day than Black Friday in recent years, also disappointed as companies struggled with out-of-stock products and were unable to offer the steep discounts people expected. Sales clocked in at $10.7 billion, a 1.4% decrease from the year prior.

This uncertainty, along with rapid shifts in how consumers interact with and purchase from brands today, means marketers have to continue to get comfortable getting out of their comfort zones.

Because it’s not just the marketing calendar that’s changing. Shopping habits have changed dramatically over the past two years as well, as e-commerce becomes the norm, prices rise higher and people start to build shipping delays into their expectations. It’s why many consumers are shopping earlier than ever for holiday gifts this year.

The way people shop and discover products is also evolving fast. Emarketer predicts social commerce sales will grow 35% to surpass $36 billion in the U.S., while major platforms rush in to offer live stream shopping capabilities.

Just over a year ago, I wrote a blog post about how the traditional holiday marketing calendar was no longer relevant in a post-pandemic world. This season, that sentiment has proven very much to be true.

Consumer habits that marketers could once predict like clockwork — buying candy in late October, flowers on Valentine’s Day, spending at big box retailers on Black Friday — no longer happen so reliably in our messy, fluid world where the definition of normal is constantly changing. That has big implications for brands.

This tectonic shift is about more than just whether or not marketers can stick to their tried-and-true holiday marketing plans. It’s another example of how modern marketers must be able to see what’s coming around the corner while remaining flexible enough to adapt to the next inevitable curveball.

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