small tree bent over by the weight of a  single ornament
PHOTO: Scott Webb

It’s by no means lost on me that it’s the middle of summer and most of the country is mired in a stifling heatwave. I get it: we’re not ready to think about fall and winter. I know I’m certainly not. But if your business depends on a strong holiday sales season, you have no choice.

Now, that alone is not new. Businesses (smart ones, anyway) have always prepared for the holiday shopping season well in advance of its arrival. What is new, however, is the presence of a global pandemic that’s already changed virtually every aspect of our lives and is unlikely to stop in deference to holiday shopping. We’re headed toward a holiday shopping season unlike any we’ve experienced, and need to start thinking now about making adjustments. 

The Big Assumption: I'm Dreaming of an Online Holiday

Before we start examining what we need to do differently, let’s examine the big assumption driving this discussion. Only, I tend to think of it less as an assumption and more as a certainty. Holiday shopping will be done digitally in 2020. Not some of it. Not the majority of it. All of it. (Fine, maybe not all of it, but you catch my drift.) To think otherwise at this point is to be wholly unprepared for what’s to come.

Now, you might be asking, “Wasn’t that already the case?” Well, yes and no. Without question, holiday shopping has gone increasingly digital in recent years. In 2019, Black Friday brick-and-mortar retail sales fell 6.2% compared with 2018, according to ShopperTrak, while online shopping grew 14%. So, yes, we were already heading in this direction.

But heading in a direction and moving there entirely are two different things. Roughly two-thirds of consumers still did at least some of their holiday shopping in person in 2019, and roughly a third still did all of it in store. In other words, businesses aren’t about to face a wave of new online shoppers: they’re about to face a tsunami. 

Related Article: What Do Businesses Need in an Ecommerce Platform Today?

Website Performance Is Paramount

Facing an influx of traffic to your digital properties during the holidays is nothing new. But a holiday shopping season done entirely online sure is, so as you prepare to put your digital properties to the test, toss your existing benchmarks out the window and make sure your web and mobile applications can withstand the forthcoming surge. That means performance testing on the front-end and load/stress testing on the backend. You simply can’t afford to have your app or website crash when you have nothing but digital buyers.

Related Article: Website Performance Is Getting Worse

Freeze the Freeze

For that very reason — to prevent apps and websites from crashing during the holiday rush — many companies have traditionally implemented a code freeze right around the end of the summer. The logic is simple: halting new changes to the app or website means less opportunity for something to go wrong. In a vacuum, the strategy makes sense.

The problem is that freezing everything means what it says. Adding new functionality, expanding coverage for new browsers or mobile devices, optimizing your checkout flow — everything is locked. The experience you’re delivering to customers at the end of August is the same experience you’ll be delivering at the end of November.

Maybe you can get away with that in a normal year. Now, though, it seems like a bigger risk than that which you’re trying to prevent. Given how rapidly things are changing in the world, do you really want to freeze your digital experience for three months? Are you really confident an application created in August will still be relevant and innovative come November? Will it still stand out from the competition?

The ironic thing about code freezes is they fly in the face of our collective efforts to be more agile. We spend the other nine months of the year finding new and innovative ways to develop, test and deliver software with speed and agility only to then implement a three-month code freeze. Frankly, that doesn’t really make sense even when we’re not dealing with a pandemic, and it certainly doesn’t make sense now that we are. Trust your investments in agile and put the freeze on ice.

Related Article: Don't Let Your CX Efforts Go Bust Over the Holidays

Prepare for New Audiences

If in-store locations aren’t an option, well that’s a whole lot of grandparents buying presents online for the first time. Prepare for an influx of shoppers wading into digital waters for the first time in their lives with dated browsers and devices in tow. Is your buying experience simple and intuitive enough for people who’ve never shopped online? Can you support the dusty old browsers and devices they might be using? Is your messaging and language relevant to someone who isn’t a digital native? If the answer to any of those questions is no, now’s the time to course-correct.

Related Article: The Demographic Your Digital Practices Can't Ignore

Have Customer Service at the Ready

A tsunami of traffic paired with an influx of first-time users is a recipe for tons of service and support requests. Expect and plan for them. Whether digital or live, create pathways for people to easily get help, and assume you’ll need to go far above and beyond what you’ve done in previous years.

A Leg Up on the Future

Nothing about 2020 has been easy, and preparing for the holiday shopping season won’t be either. Here’s the reality though: the digital world was already fast descending upon us. COVID-19 has only accelerated its arrival. Those who put in the work now and are willing to challenge conventional methods will get a leg up on the future.