Why retailers need to think beyond Black Friday this holiday shopping season

It’s that time again when shopping shifts into overdrive. The holiday season is responsible for as much as 30% of a retailer’s sales for the year and that’s likely to go up. With the stakes so high, it’s worth taking a moment to understand what customer expectations are. For many retailers the focus has been on digital – and with good reason. Plenty of print has already been used to document the digital revolution in shopping behaviour. What we’ve found, however, is that some important trends and shifts can be missed because of all the focus that retailers put on becoming more digital.

Whilst at this time of year Black Friday becomes the focus of every industry observer’s attention, we know that consumers are looking a lot further afield and doing it in a smart and organised way.  This year in particular we know this better than ever because we’ve expanded traditional research focus on Black Friday to encompass more of the shopping season (across the US, Germany, UK, and Canada). Our survey of 2,500 consumers not only highlights significant behaviours and habits; it uncovers some emerging trends with big implications for retailers.

  • Shoppers are looking for help — The #1 concern of shoppers? Not knowing what gift to buy, according to 47% of respondents. This lack of certainty is also reflected in the fact that many consumers don’t have a defined budget for their shopping – a significant minority of shoppers, 13% in the UK say they don’t have a holiday shopping budget this year.
  • Omnichannel shopping behaviours are more common — The majority (62%) of consumers plan to head both online and in-store to make their festive purchases. While researching and buying happens online in significant numbers, most shopping happens in stores. However, shoppers are increasingly looking to digitally-enhanced offline shopping experiences: browsing products from a digital panel (24%), self-checkout (11%), and offers direct to their phone (10%) were top benefits as far as in-store consumers were concerned. Meanwhile, “old media”, like catalogues, flyers, and newspaper advertisements, still retain a strong appeal as valued sources of information and ideas.
  • Consumers know what they value — Asked to rank what motivates them the most to participate in their top three favourite winter shopping events, encountering attractive offers was the top reason identified by consumers, followed closely by the convenience of shopping online and finding inspiring gift ideas. They are also looking for free expedited shipping and delivery certainty.
  • Clear consumer segments have emerged —Women continue to drive spend and planning –with women in the UK (24%) and Canada (19%) proving the most highly organised in this respect – but men are an increasing part of the equation and important target for retailers and brands. For women, the focus is on gift purchases for the household and children, while male consumers shop primarily for their partner/significant other (and for themselves).

These and other trends that we are seeing emerge, are clear signposts to what the retailers that want to be the holiday season winners need to be doing.  Three specific capabilities stand out as critical to successfully capitalising on these new consumer behaviours at this, the busiest and most cut-throat season of the retail calendar.


As shopping behaviours become ever more granular and unique – a Canadian woman shopping for a household item before October, or a male shopper buying something for his spouse in December – the ability to target relevant offers is increasingly becoming the deciding factor in a retailer’s success. Personalisation can boost total sales by 15-20%, and digital sales even more, while significantly improving the ROI on marketing spend across marketing channels.


While distinct channels have important roles – browsing online, checking options on smartphones, buying in store – shoppers are increasingly expecting and actively engaging in omnichannel experiences. Retailers have long recognised the reality that their customers shop in omnichannel ways but have been slower to implement truly omnichannel programs that can follow the consumer across the entire consumer decision journey.


Timing, as they say, is everything. The increasing importance of winning the consideration battle has significant implications for how retailers plan their marketing programs. Retailers are launching promotional campaigns earlier and earlier than before. In previous personalisation research, in fact, one of the primary use cases that emerged is that shoppers want relevant recommendations. Providing options early in a shopper’s planning cycle and/or providing curated and easy-to-navigate options for gifting when browsing in store or online is a win.

While many promotions, offerings and operations are put in place months before the holiday shopping season, retailers and consumer goods companies that are already on their digital journey can act quickly and still increase this year’s gains. For Amazon’s Prime Day shopping event, for example, Walmart announced their competing Rollback event just two days before. Even with such short notice, customers responded. Walmart’s online storefront saw a 91% jump in daily sessions compared to the prior three-week average. So, don’t despair, seize the opportunity to lift your sales this holiday season!

For more information, download Periscope by McKinsey’s full report here.