Preparing for Peak with Astound Commerce UK

24th November 2021

As retailers double down on digital ahead of an almost fully-online Black Friday in lockdown, our very own Alistair Morrison sits down with Sophie Wilson, Digital Consultant at Astound Commerce, a leading global digital agency, to chat all things unprecedented peak.

From what trends we expect to see to trading strategies that capitalise on Christmas sales and how data can inform technology roadmaps for 2021, Alistair and Sophie share their key takeaways for retail success when it matters most – during the Golden Quarter.

Alistair Morrison (AM): So, here we are in Lockdown 2.0. This second national lockdown will give Black Friday and Cyber Monday 2020 a very different feel in that they will be almost fully digital with non-essential retail stores remaining closed, save for click-and-collect services.

How has this peak affected the brands and retailers you work with at Astound Commerce?

Sophie Wilson (SW): Already this year we’ve had a practice run during the first lockdown, where retailers’ digital models have really been tested, and what we saw for a lot of our clients was increased and sustained levels, both in terms of traffic and revenue.

And, while this means that the wider ecommerce teams already have some expectations on how ecommerce will perform during Lockdown 2 and Black Friday, looking forward there is increased pressure on retail teams to perform and make up for any lost sales earlier in the year, sustained in the first lockdown, to hit yearly targets. This will be magnified by the closure of non-essential retail stores in Lockdown 2, so – with a whole sales channel out of action – there’s even more pressure to play catch up.

AM: So, what trends do you think we’ll see play out during peak 2020?

SW: This year, I think we’ll see:

  1. A peak on top of peak – I would expect the shape of demand to be different during this lockdown; in March and April retailers’ ecommerce demand went from zero to a hundred and it came out of nowhere. This time round we will likely see a more sustain peak on top of the peak trading volumes.
  2. Front-ended demand to allay fulfilment fears – Shoppers may be concerned about potential delivery delays as we saw in the first lockdown, so we might see more of a front-ended surge in demand, rather than last minute buys.
  3. Widespread adoption of discounting – Depending on the stock position of retailers’ warehouses, markdown strategies are going to be potentially a lot more aggressive, and we may see even more retailers and brands taking part in Black Friday promotions. This means DCs and warehouse should expect more units and transactions flowing through them from online sales channels.

So, in summary, expect nothing less than huge volume across the retail and customer supply chain.

AM. Yes, so expect actual carnage! And the point around warehousing is particularly pertinent – to shift stock, it’s not just about the transaction, you need the logistics network and capabilities in place to be able to cope with that increased demand.

That fulfilment is a key piece of the customer experience puzzle that retailers are looking to solve, no matter what time of year you’re shopping – but even more so when you add in a looming deadline, such as Christmas Day. If retailers can’t fulfil in time, they face significant brand reputation and loyalty issues.

So, many of our customers are already in ‘peak’ and we are speaking to lots of retailers about preparing for a significant surge in demand that many are already seeing – and that’s even before the traditional ‘Golden Quarter’. Some retailers have learnt lessons from Lockdown 1 and have already put in the groundwork to ready their websites. But many others haven’t done such comprehensive planning and they are the ones who need to scale technology quickly to plan for what is coming.

From your perspective, what can retailers do from a trading perspective to capitalise on sales?

SW: In a normal year, trading teams would have been planning peak trading in the summer months and that’s really been turned on its head this year. At this stage it’s probably too late to invest in huge technological changes – better now to invest in getting your business processes and people lined up to react quickly. Also, now is not the time to stick to strict BAU processes – it’s the time to start testing and learning. Day to day agility, working faster, making the right decisions by using the insight from data to inform how you do business will all be key for peak trading success.

AM: That’s been a common theme we’re hearing around the use of data and making sure you are using it to your advantage. Looking at the data you have – data from last year’s Black Friday, data from Lockdown 1, the emerging consumer behaviour trends you are seeing from your own customers – all these data sets have key insights they can offer to inform decisions as retailers navigate uncharted territory this year.

Even pre-pandemic, we were talking to our customers about having a new way of thinking – something we called ‘perma-peak’. We put together this report – ‘Preparing for Perma Peak: The changing face of the trading calendar’ that describes the concept of constantly being ready for demand. There is always something that can cause demand to spike, whether you’ve planned for it or not. It could be Black Friday, that you know comes around each year, or completely unplanned – a pandemic, a lockdown. Or could be social influencers causing a huge spike in traffic to your website that you only understand after the event. So perma-peak is about being ready for anything and making sure your ecommerce platforms are geared up to cope in any situation, so that retailers can capitalise on sales wherever and whenever the opportunities arise.

AM: What’s your view on this new consumer behaviour – will this peak run out into January 2021 and beyond the Christmas sales?

SW: I would expect so – and, of course, there is a lot of unknowns when it comes to stores reopening but online will be the continued channel of choice for shoppers post-pandemic and beyond. The longer stores are closed, there’s the opportunity for online retailers to convert new shoppers and convince them about how easy ecommerce is, as long as you have a compelling digital proposition – and then shopping online becomes habitual for those new customers.

And from these new customers, retailers will create new shopper segments, each with their own unique sets of demands and expectations. That’s why now is the time for trading teams to focus on understand what the data is telling them about these new cohorts of shoppers and doubling their efforts in retention strategies to convert one-time shoppers into repeat customers to sustain that perma-peak.

AM: With that surge in traffic that’s coming – what is the knock-on effect of this digital first peak trading period when stores do reopen after lockdown? What provisions do businesses need to make to continue to serve both new customer who’ve come online and also those who continue to shop in their stores?

SW: When I was client side, working across many retailers, often while online doesn’t compete necessarily with stores, they will have their own sets of agendas, plans and marketing strategies they will be working to. Omnichannel’s never been more pressing and important to serve the customer – but meeting their heightened demands across each channel and across every touchpoint won’t succeed without an integrated approach that transcends those traditional siloes.

It needs to be integrated, it needs to be consistent and it needs to be personal.

AM: Yes, and it needs to be completely seamless from end-to-end as well. Right from the first engagement to checkout and beyond, keeping them in that customer loyalty loop is absolutely crucial.

So, we have talked about peak, but we’ve also touched on long-term strategies for success.

If you had to give retailers one piece of advice – one for pre-Black Friday and one for the future – what would they be?

SW: Pre-Black Friday, preparation is the key. Plan for every worst-case scenario and invest in resource – from customer care to operation to warehouse so all the wider ecommerce team is on the same page and knows the collective goals they are working towards.

SW: Data insight can inform the next steps in the digital transformation journey. Looking further ahead to Q1, this is the time for businesses to realign and reforecast, so the takeaway would be to look back at how you have performed, where the friction was and then use the data to inform what your next steps on your technology roadmap should be for the year ahead. Lead with the data and lessons learned to dictate what technologies you need to future-proof your business.