The holiday shopping season is well underway and despite a national spike in coronavirus cases, shoppers are still heading out to buy gifts in person.

What’s worked in the past for your store might not be the best strategy during a pandemic, so we asked two merchandising experts and a shop owner for tips on boosting last-minute holiday sales this year. They laid out 10 tips to make sure you close out Q4 with a healthy balance sheet—and build loyalty among your customers going into 2021.

1. Tell sales staff to prioritize efficiency

Despite the fact people are still shopping in person, it doesn’t mean they want to spend a lot of time in your store.

“People shopping in-store want to be as efficient as possible,” said Carrie Watson, retail coach at Outside Looks. “They're already braving the pandemic when they're showing up at your location, so help them by treating their shopping list as a to-do list.”

This will require a quick talk with your floor staff. Encourage them to work as efficiently as possible with shoppers. This isn’t the year for leisure shopping—people want to get in, get what they need, and get out.

That means sales associates need to ask questions like, “Who do you have left on your list?” and “What gifts are you still missing?” This will help them guide customers to the right products as quickly as possible.

2. Curate ideas for your customers

“Storytelling with your merchandising is huge,” said Jordan Martindell, an outdoor industry professional who spent years merchandising for the holiday season at Anthropologie. “If you have a top-selling sweater that you have folded on a table, put a backpack or a fanny pack there, as well as a water bottle and a book about hiking. You're basically telling the customer all of these items work together as a cohesive gift.”

They may not buy all four items, but they might buy two of them.

Christine Iksic, co-owner of the Pittsburgh-based gear shop 3 Rivers Outdoor Co., has a similar strategy: She curates gift baskets for her followers.

“I send out an email blast with a gift guide that’s basically three or four items we put together for ‘coffee lovers’ or ‘Pennsylvania hikers,’ or whomever,” she said. “If you buy all four items, you get 10 percent off.” Iksic’s in-store tables also highlight these groupings—a way of doubling down on the strategy.

Watson, who has more than a decade of outdoor industry experience, also recommends the tactic. With any curated gift idea, she said, it’s important to clearly define the ideal recipient. That way, the customer’s mind more easily lands on something like, “That reminds me of my sister or my husband, who I still need to get a gift for.”

3. Increase the amount of product on the floor

Martindell learned from her years at Anthropologie that it’s important to increase the amount of product on the floor during the holiday season.

“What we typically had on the floor increased pretty dramatically during the holidays,” she said. “If we typically had six water bottles on a table, we’d increase it to 10. You want to make sure you have everything you need out on the floor to accommodate the traffic that's coming in and out of your store.”

4. Group items by category, not by brand

“A lot of places will merchandise their stores based on brand, with Patagonia over here and Columbia over there,” said Martindell. “But during the holidays, it's good to pull together certain categories, like your top five best-selling jackets.”

In other words, take stock of which items reliably drive your sales and group those together.

“People don't necessarily walk into a store with a specific jacket in mind,” said Martindell. Instead, shoppers arrive knowing they want a jacket of some kind, but usually wait to see their options before making a choice. So make it easy on them: “You want to give them the ability to see all options at once.”

5. Pay close attention to your stock

This may seem obvious, but Martindell says it’s something stores often overlook.

“Any piece that’s displayed in your window or on your mannequins you need to actually have in stock,” said Martindell, noting that those window pieces are often what bring people into a store in the first place. “It's not difficult—it just means paying attention and looking at your mannequins more frequently.”

Regularly ensuring your displays align with your stock also allows you to avoid last-minute orders. “We all know receiving has been crazy this year,” said Watson. “Using your current stock means you don't have to make a promise to a customer that you'll get something in.”

6. Get in the holiday spirit...

This season, Iksic has regularly updated her store’s Instagram Stories in order to highlight specific products.

“Next Monday’s theme will be last-minute stocking stuffers,” she said. “I basically walk through the store and highlight certain items, talking about them, and showing the price.”

The cleverest part of this system: Iksic allows customers to respond directly to the Instagram Stories with order requests—a small DIY ecommerce hack that can move the needle on sales.

Iksic also bought a handful of miniature Santa’s elves and hid them around the store this year to drive viral marketing.

“If customers find them, take a picture, and post it to social, they get 10 percent off when they show it at the counter,” she said. “We’ve made it harder [to find the elves] this week and upped the discount to 15 percent.”

7. ...But don’t take it too far

“The ‘color story’ in your displays is always important,” said Martindell, “but you don't necessarily want to put all the red hats and all the green hats together.”

That, she said, could also peg you as exclusively Christmas-oriented.

“Yes, Christmas is probably the driving holiday, but as a brand, you don’t want that to be all you serve. In the political-social climate that we live in today, getting away from obvious holiday themes is a good idea.”

She recommends sticking a more generic ‘winter’ theme, which appeals to everyone.

8. Develop a backup plan

Martindell recommends spending early Friday mornings resetting the store before it opens for the weekend, as well as briefing staff on a backup plan for inventory challenges.

“If you have a gangbusters Saturday and your floor looks like it's been completely shopped, your team needs to know how to flip [the store] to have a successful Sunday,” she said.

That means having a backup plan for best-selling items that might go out of stock. If you anticipate a well-performing item going out of stock by Saturday night, you need to know what you’re going to replace it with for the Sunday rush, Martindell said. You need to develop that plan—and, critically, you need to communicate it to your staff.

9. Don’t neglect your “grab and go” section

You know how grocery stores always put candy and lip balm near the checkout? You want to make sure you have similar “counter candy” in your space, especially to target folks waiting in line.

“Create a display [near the register] with a bunch of smaller items, like his and hers stocking stuffers” said Martindell. “The easier you make those last-minute purchases, the better.”

Having a section dedicated to accessories is important for the same reason. “Create a section in your store devoted to hats, scarfs, mittens, and gloves," Martindell said. 

10. Use New Year’s resolutions as a sales tool

Looking beyond the holidays, Watson recommends creating displays that use New Year’s resolutions as a sales tactic. Customers are already in a shopping mindset for the holidays. Why not encourage them to spend a little on themselves, too?

“Maybe [a customer] got that ultralight tent and now they're ready for the next thing,” she said. “It’s about continuing the conversation with customers and guiding them through the process of becoming better. They're looking to us as retailers and product experts to be able to outfit them so they can realize their goals.”

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