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PHOTO: Andrew Roberts

Retailers with brick-and-mortar operations will be facing one of the most challenging holiday seasons in memory this year. They are facing the combined impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting social distancing rules, as well as record high unemployment rates, meaning less disposable income for many.

Among the business challenges will be how to provide good to excellent customer experience (CX) while scaling back or reinventing Black Friday and similar seasonal promotions, as many of the nation’s largest retailers have already announced. Here are a few suggestions to overcome the CX holiday challenges.

Drive Innovation for In-Person Experiences

"If retailers intend to capture consumers in a physical experience, it will be critical to offer rich, joyful, unusual opportunities for entertainment retail," said Antonia Hock, who is the global head of The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center. "Safety will continue to be important, but consumers will be looking for surprise, delight, and experiential moments that inform a purchase."

By way of example, Hock shared a call she'd received from a hotel that offered a personal invitation to stay, a customized Vodka tasting based on their knowledge of her preferences, an outdoor spa massage and a private surf lesson with a local pro — all based on her search history, all delivered within 30 minutes of her initial online search.

“The hotel curated a memorable stay — just for me,” Hock said. “That was the extra mile that I wanted.”

Related Article: Preparing for a Holiday Shopping Season Like No Other

Keep a Clear Eye on Your Inventory

Several of the country’s largest retailers have already perfected contactless customer experience optimizations like reserve online, pick up in-store; buy online, pick up in-store; and curb-side pickup, said Danielle Savin, Capgemini North America senior director of marketing solutions. All of these serve to encourage shoppers to support local stores while following social distancing rules.

But Savin cautioned retailers to stay on top of inventory to smooth this process. "In order to ensure customer satisfaction, retailers need to have a unified view of their inventory, so customers in turn have an accurate view of products available for purchase (otherwise this can lead to a lot of frustrated customers). This is a risk especially for retailers with multiple warehouses and for organizations that are repurposing their stores as warehouses for ecommerce and curbside pick-up orders.”

Related Article: How Do You Tell One Digital Cheese From Another?

Build on Local Connections

Consider product assortment that create ties to community or localization, Hock advised. “Right now, isolation from familiar local rituals is challenging a sense of connection. Local product partnerships, local online pop-ups and products or services that support local craftsmen will be extra desirable."

She added that sharable products like wine tasting kits, art classes, online fitness programs will all be important as the trends of being “apart together” continues.

Related Article: Retention, Not Acquisition, Will Be Hard This Holiday Season

Meet Customer Demands by Removing Friction or Offering Discounts

Customers are expecting discounts this holiday season, probably more than ever, said Ty Givens, founder and CEO of The Workforce Pro. "With so many people out of work and limited incomes, this is the time of year we’ve all been waiting for to get more for less. Realistically, everyone is suffering: the business and the customers, a happy medium has to be reached."

If business conditions don’t make discounts doable, then make the shopping experience as easy as possible, Givens said. "An easy shopping experience looks like less effort for the customer which will be perceived as value. Think of luxury brands who do not necessarily offer any discounts, but what they do give is high touch, white glove service. Most luxury brands pride themselves on reduced customer effort. Essentially, you don't have to lift a finger, it's all taken care of." Givens recommended using data and consumer behavior to create segmented email lists that are personalized and targeted to smaller customer segments.

Related Article: Design Ecommerce Experiences to Handle Increasing Demand

Skip the Old Email Flyer: Personalize Every Offer

"We've all received the traditional Black Friday email flier; usually, it's filled with stuff we don't want and maybe one or two things we do," said Liz Froment, a content marketing consultant for B2B brands. "What retailers need to do is stop sending out generic emails. Even the most basic combination of email service provider data, CRM tools and ecommerce shopping tools can give retailers a wealth of information on not only customer, but individual customer psychographics too."

Froment added that far too many retailers ignore all of the nuggets of information you can find in that data to segment email lists into personalized, targeted messages.

“Look at predictive behavior, what your customers have browsed, what they've left in their shopping cart, and what they've bought in the past. All of that can tell you a story about what they are more likely to be interested in come the holiday season,” Froment said.

Break down segmented lists using geolocation to send targeted emails in the proper time zone that highlight local retail shops and the special events or deals during the season, Froment added. Retailers can even go a step further and include user-generated content in the form of reviews and testimonials to highlight those products that are still sitting on the shelves.

“Consumers are far more interested in getting emails that speak directly to their needs; they aren't interested in opening generic emails anymore,” Froment said. “Embrace personalization, and you can stand out in a crowded inbox.”