“Always On” Requires Rethinking of Retail’s Seasonal Calendar

Be'Anka Ashaolu
Be'Anka Ashaolu
Sr. Manager, Digital Marketing

Consumers have changed more than just their transactional approaches to shopping. They’ve changed everything about the way they shop and consume, and they’re forcing retail to rethink its most time-honored foundational pillar: the seasonal calendar.

Over the course of the tumultuous retail environment of the past several years, a universal truth has been revealed. Simply put, retail has forever changed. And with consumers’ connected abilities to gather information and explore global shopping alternatives, they are firmly and forevermore in control of their shopping journeys.

Responding to that universal truth, retailing brands are rethinking their entire enterprises, particularly the new roles of stores. However, rethinking the operational side of the enterprise just isn’t enough.

Consumers have changed more than just their transactional approaches to shopping. They’ve changed everything about the way they shop and consume, and they’re forcing retail to rethink its most time-honored foundational pillar: the seasonal calendar.

For generations, retailers banked on huge windfalls from traditional retail seasons. Holiday, generally considered to run from Thanksgiving through to New Year’s Day, was – and still is – the single largest retail season, but others are Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, “Dad and Grads” and Back-to-School (BtS).

The basic economic premise retail businesses were built upon have been rooted in those key seasonal periods of performance – those seasons were where the bulk of expected sales and profits were to be found, and in many ways, they underwrote the rest of the year.

Today, the traditional seasons still provide noticeable peaks in shopper traffic and sales volume, although increasingly smaller peaks with each successive year. Most importantly for retailers though, those seasons no longer deliver profitable performance.

Seasonal shopping is now almost entirely deal-driven, and at the same time, retailers face numerous competitive challenges, including:

  • The ease and convenience of “always on” mobile shopping
  • Amazon’s vast operational infrastructure, providing not only convenience of shopping, but low-cost products and timely delivery
  • Seasonally-manifested volume, making shopping journeys a real chore, and the very antithesis of the joyful, curated shopping experiences leading-edge retailers attempt to nurture all year long

One just has to look at the carnage of the past two holiday seasons to see how cutting through noise with massive discounting leads only to a “race to the bottom,” and retailers’ Income and Cash Flow Statements can no longer sustain those losses.

Of course, massive discounting is a tactic that is directly tied to retail’s dependence on its outdated seasonal calendar. Shoppers are changing all that.

Stretching the seasons

Shoppers “stretch” shopping seasons by starting earlier and earlier – and in some cases, stopping later and later – and no two seasons are more indicative of this new phenomenon than Back-to-School and Holiday.

Traditionally, retail considered BtS to extend from mid-July through to Labor Day, the first Monday of September. Merchandising assortments and promotional calendars are built entirely upon those seven to eight weeks.

But, the mobile-equipped, Internet-connected shopper is no longer dependent on waiting for retailers to dictate the timing of product availability and the best deals. They shop anywhere, anytime, all the time. Consumer surveys suggest August accounts for less than 50 percent of total BtS shopping, for example, and expenditures vary considerably across different retail verticals – consumer electronics, for one, sees over 11 percent of its BtS sales in June.

RetailNext’s own data shows store traffic and sales are stretching more and more into June and July, and while August is seeing a bit of an uplift, it’s not so much for BtS as it is for … holiday season, believe it or not.

Shoppers are starting holiday shopping earlier – according to a consumer survey by Statista, 12.2 percent of shoppers started their holiday shopping before September. Furthermore, RetailNext data suggests some movement of December traffic and sales into January, further leading to the thought that shoppers are beating retailers at their own game by waiting for post-season markdowns, clearances and close-outs.  

Breaking down to break out

The breakdown of the retail calendar falls naturally in line with shifting seasonal patterns, and as a result, retailers can no longer be rigid and they can no longer be slaves to the chronological tyranny of a seasonal calendar. To sustain through these changes, it will be incumbent on all of retail to be just like its shoppers – always on.

Take showrooming as an idea. Showrooms have the potential to be the seamless conduit between e-commerce and brick-and-mortar channels. And, although this isn’t necessarily a new idea to online retailers – a bevy have already made the leap, gaining five- to eight-times sales increases along the way – it can work for the physically native brands too.

Imagine: consumers shop in brick-and-mortar stores, now stocked with the very things they need no matter the time of year, but they would exit empty-handed to await delivery of their selected products to their home. Essentially, the retailer could – would – always be prepared with what their shoppers needed, when they needed it, with the added bonus of retaining the ever-important touch-and-feel.

Changing retail’s reliance on its outdated seasonal calendar is no trivial matter. It’s not just a change in mindset, it’s a change affecting the entire 360-degree ecosystem. From sourcing to inventory management, merchandising to advertising spend and placement, retailers must break away from legacy infrastructures and systems to compete for consumers’ year-round attention and a share of their expenditures.

Brands must develop long-term, shopper-centric visions inclusive of all customer touchpoints and reflective of what shoppers want out of their retailers of choice. A big step in the right direction is abandoning unproductive and unprofitable past practices like dictating to shoppers the product assortment available in current and upcoming calendar seasons.

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