Retail Customer Service: Trends & Tips for Success This Holiday Season

with more consumers shopping online this holiday season retail customer service must respond to trends

“Oh there’s no place like home for the holidays…” And in the first pandemic holiday season we’ve seen in more than 100 years, home is exactly where many shoppers will stay. What will this mean for retail customer service?

Changes in consumer behavior due to the COVID-19 pandemic have brought with them new challenges for retailers and their workforces. As we all search for a new normal this holiday season, here are some trends to keep in mind.

6 Trends Affecting the Retail Customer Experience

1. Online shopping grew more quickly than anyone expected, and will continue to be strong during the holidays.

According to Adobe’s Digital Economy Index report, U.S. online spending in May 2020 rose to $83 billion – a year-on-year increase of 77%.

This incredible growth (though not surprising given current conditions) represents a significant acceleration of the eCommerce trend. As Vivek Pandya, Adobe Digital Insights Manager, explained: “It would’ve taken between 4 and 6 years to get to the levels that we saw in May if the growth continued at the same levels it was at for the past few years.” The pandemic has hit fast-forward on digital retail.

Although eMarketer projects total U.S. retail sales will fall by 10.5% in 2020, eCommerce sales will rise by 18% overall. This translates to a boom in online shopping this holiday season.

2. Retail foot traffic could decline to spring 2020 levels if stay-at-home orders are issued.

According to data collected by, foot traffic to retail locations in March and April 2020 fell by more than 80% compared to 2019, but bounced back to only 30% less than pre-pandemic levels by August. The drop was even more pronounced for indoor retail locations, like shopping malls, compared to outdoor locations. This suggests that as cases spike, the weather gets colder, and stay-at-home orders are potentially reinstated, retail foot traffic is bound to fall again.

However, we can expect that some shoppers this holiday season will still venture out to brick-and-mortar locations – although they will likely be more spread out, preferring to avoid the most crowded shopping days like Black Friday. Estimating expected foot traffic to your locations will be key, as will extending promotions to cover longer periods of time and rethinking classic holiday tactics like doorbusters.

3. Delivery will be a big factor in holiday shopping.

Analysis from Deg Digital predicts that consumers’ biggest priorities right now are convenience and safety, “so buying online and having products delivered to their doorsteps will be the main way consumers shop this holiday season.”

However, industry experts are projecting logistical challenges and shipping delays. For example, traditional carriers like FedEx and UPS are expected to exceed global capacity by 5% in the six weeks leading up to Christmas. While that might not seem like a lot, that puts 700 million gifts at risk of not arriving before December 25.

4. People are already shopping earlier this season.

Every year, it seems like the holiday season starts earlier and earlier (we’re looking at you, people who start listening to Christmas carols before Halloween!). But in 2020, this is expected to be even more pronounced as people navigate holiday gift shopping during a pandemic.

Shoppers want the Black Friday deals, but they don’t want to risk the Black Friday crowds. So they are beginning their shopping even earlier and looking to retailers to offer good values, especially given that half of U.S. households have dealt with some kind of economic hardship due to COVID-19. Companies need to consider what impact this will have to retail customer service processes, specifically.

5. It’s time for new processes, like curbside pickup, to move “from scrappy to scale.”

As shoppers have been trying to avoid spending time inside crowded stores, new product delivery options like buy online, pick up in-store (BOPIS) have become a new standard. According to research from Adobe, BOPIS orders grew 23% between June and July 2020.

Industry experts are issuing a challenge to retailers this holiday season, insisting that companies that didn’t have a mature offering for curbside pickup pre-pandemic need to shift the experience “from scrappy to scale.” Shoppers have had all spring and summer to become accustomed to new ways of shopping, and a smooth BOPIS experience has become table stakes. This holiday season, retailers need to turn to automation and robust customer support to deliver a winning experience.

6. The customer experience is still king.

The more things change…

Despite the disruptions to the industry, retailers’ success (or failure) is still driven by the customer experience. In fact, Frost & Sullivan predicted that customer experience would overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator by 2020, and research from Gartner has found for 2020 and beyond, 81% of retailers still expect to be competing mostly or entirely based on CX. Retail customer service is a vital component of that.

All that has changed is the experience itself, and the retailers that will come out ahead are the ones that can adapt.

5 Tips for Retail Customer Service in a Pandemic Holiday Season

In light of these trends, here are five tips to make sure you’re staying competitive as a retailer in the new normal:

1. Screen employees for symptoms in your brick-and-mortar locations.

It’s important to keep your staff and your shoppers safe, especially as COVID-19 cases continue to grow. Using an employee health screening solution asks team members to self-screen for common COVID symptoms before coming in for their shift, reducing the risk of spreading the illness.

Chatbot-based screeners can be deployed quickly, and have the benefit of being easy for employees to use while collecting valuable information to keep your team (and your customers) as safe as possible.

2. Revisit your eCommerce customer journey

This holiday season is shaping up to break records for online shopping. Is your digital customer journey ready?

As the onslaught of online shoppers begins, make sure you’re following these eCommerce customer experience best practices:

  • Enable shoppers to get real-time answers to their questions using interactive service chatbots and/or live chat with support staff. Make these options available on every page so help is easily accessible. Not being able to find a quick answer is a major barrier to purchase, so you’ll want to ensure this process is as smooth as possible.
  • Collect direct user feedback on your shopping experience with quick Voice of the Customer surveys, and make sure this data is easy to distribute among key stakeholders so you can take quick action.
  • Leverage email process automation to resolve the inevitable influx of incoming customer emails as quickly as possible (see tip #4 for more on this). A quick reply can arrive in time to save the sale!

3. Scale support alongside new processes

Shoppers have come to expect retailers to offer pandemic-friendly interaction options like curbside pick-up, same-day delivery from their local store, contactless payment, and so on. New processes and policies always bring with them new support challenges, but companies don’t always arm their customer care team with the right information and tools to handle them.

As we head into the thick of this busy season, make sure your customer care teams have access to an integrated knowledge base containing the latest information on delivery options like curbside or BOPIS, contactless and mobile payment methods, and more. Customer-facing interfaces, like chatbots and public knowledge bases, should be kept updated as well.

4. Manage seasonal traffic spikes with automation

For retail customer service teams, the holidays usually mean big spikes in contact volume. Many contact centers seek outside help, either by hiring more agents or turning to outsourcers.

But technologies like email process automation enable you to flex to meet demand, adding elasticity while reducing costs. For example, Astute’s Email Virtual Assistant (EVA):

  • Reads incoming customer emails
  • Interprets the issues and creates a case
  • Generates a response using machine learning from how your agents have replied to similar messages in the past
  • Calculates and attaches goodwill, if applicable
  • Presents the finished email to the agent to QA and send, OR sends directly to the customer with no human intervention (if you so choose)

As you can see, email automation now goes beyond generic auto-replies to deliver real resolutions to customers, rising to the challenge of the large influx of support emails you’re likely to receive during this holiday season – not to mention the inevitable slew of post-holiday returns and exchanges.

5. Forecast foot traffic with Voice of the Customer data

Using a Voice of the Customer (VoC) tool like Astute’s Customer Confidence survey can help you assess how safe your customers feel coming to your brick-and-mortar locations. With a reporting dashboard that highlights changes in comfort levels, regional differences, and other key insights, this solution helps you plan for expected foot traffic through the holiday season.

The Astute survey will also tell you how customers are reacting to your current COVID-19 safety policies, and what you could do to help them feel safer. Having this feedback loop with your customers can help you react quickly to changes in their sentiment and behavior.

Astute has the advanced customer experience technologies retailers need to compete in this new world. Schedule a demo to see how our end-to-end engagement platform can help you come out ahead.