Ask the expert: How can retailers succeed this holiday season?

When shelter-in-place orders were first instated in March, retailers had to close their doors in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, resulting in a steep drop in sales for everyone. While the decline was not totally out of the blue, retailers are still feeling the pressure: according to Epsilon data, consumers across generations still have mixed feelings around when they will return to stores.

Now, retailers are at a pivotal point to try and make up for lost revenue. With a presidential election fast approaching and the holiday season looming in the distance, it's imperative brands have a strong Q4. But this holiday season is not like any other we’ve seen; the strategies brands have used in the past don’t necessarily apply in the same way this year.

COVID-19 restrictions are wavering and it appears we are in this for the long haul, potentially even into the holidays. Customers are especially wary of returning to retail stores with all this unknown. Not to mention, each individual customer feels differently about shopping in-store right now. Because of this, brands must fully understand the wants and needs of their customers, and communicate clear, effective messaging at the individual level.

In order to better understand how retailers can use identity to connect with customers and stand out as a brand—all while hitting key KPIs—we consulted a few retail marketing experts to see what kind of advice they would give for this unusual holiday season.

Prompt: What piece of advice or tips would you give retail marketers on how they could use data and identity to succeed this holiday season, especially with the changes in shopping behavior due to COVID?

1. Holiday messages are more important this year than ever

Karen Schnelwar, Vice President, Global Brand Strategy and Marketing, OXO Brands

“Identity is core—both brand identity and consumer identity. At the right moment with the right message, the twain  shall meet. In this new normal, signs of the familiar and the trusted are vitally important, especially when this connection is more virtual than ever.

“To this end, what a brand stands for—what they offer, what they believe, what difference they make in the lives of their consumer—must telegraph at all points of touch. More and more consumers are choosing brands based on shared values; the key is reaching these consumers with a genuine, resonant message.

“Holiday time is noisy, but in a year when families are not all going to be able to be together for the holidays—travel is difficult, social distancing is vital—holiday purchases will mean even more.

2. Know your customers—and how their habits have changed

Pete Krainik, Founder, The CMO Club

“There are three key questions retailers need to have answers to for holiday season success:

  1. Do you really know how your most loyal customers have changed their behavior these last few months? 
  2. How have customers’ new experiences where convenience matters most impacted their buying-decision processes going forward?  
  3. What new competitors have emerged during this pandemic that were not on your radar four months ago? Who has expanded their footprint into your place in the market?

“Your ability to leverage data and customer identity to answer these questions will have a direct impact on your holiday season success.”

3. Use what you know about the customer to drive lift and revenue

Jessica Hendrix, President and CEO, Saatchi & Saatchi X

“It’s critical to start with a specific retailer objective and defined audience to drive incremental behavior change. While COVID has changed where and how consumers are purchasing in the present, it’s critical to still leverage past data to target the right audience for an unknown holiday environment.

“This, combined with a clear link between insights and retailer media execution, will increase effectiveness and compliment the physical retail experience. By analyzing lift through these various data points, we can truly impact category and brand growth—even in an unknown holiday environment.”

Watch now: The election & holiday 2020: Consumer insights for a proactive marketing plan


4. Personalize where it matters most, and don’t wade into unnecessary data

Jason Goldberg, Chief Strategy Officer, Publicis NA & host of  the Jason & Scot Show podcast.

“Before getting into advanced personalization, make sure you have the basics covered. Don’t ask for customer info you won’t use, and make sure you use the information you do collect for the benefit of the customer. For example, use exclusion lists to not retarget me for products I’ve already purchased from you. Be extra careful about retargeting ads, which could spoil a gift surprise on a shared computer.

“Because travel and many traditional holiday rituals will be disrupted this holiday season, it’s a great time to personalize digital amenities. For example, can you offer an online ‘Secret Santa’ drawing for friends and families that can’t get together to draw names? Can you offer gift wrapping for delivered gifts, for family members that can exchange gifts in person?”

5. Reward your most loyal customers with exclusive perks and ease

Kelly Nickerson, Vice President, Strategic Consulting, Epsilon

“This holiday, make your valued customers feel special during a time when new traditions are sure to be forged. Disruptions from quarantine, limited travel and the economy mean the pressure to find the perfect gift—and sending it well ahead—will be intensified for everyone. Reward VIP and loyal customers with the benefit of pre-order, early selection and free shipping with an in-stock guarantee that’s sure to please.

“Consumers now more than ever value service over lowest price, and providing insider access to popular toys, gifts and clothing while it’s still in size and on shelf nabs the sale early, too. Black Friday competitive madness creates disappointment for those slow to the trigger; with lessened physical store options, early-shop opportunities at higher margins is a perk in and of itself.

6. Reaching and engaging lapsed customers is the key to success

Matt Feczko, Vice President of Product Management, Epsilon

“Holiday season is an opportune time to message lapsed customers, as that is when they’re most likely to reengage with your brand. We’ve seen that lapsed customers’ share of total sales doubles during holiday season compared to non-holiday time periods.

“In a recent conversation with multichannel retailer, we focused on two key factors: reach and optimization. First, ensure your data onboarder has superior match and reach to maximize the audience available for messaging, and make sure they have persistent identification to continuously build on the conversation—reminding lapsed customers why they should buy again. Second, when it comes to optimization and avoiding media waste, you need a solution that can identify which of the millions of lapsed customers are ready to buy right now.”

Download our latest research to learn more: Consumer sentiment during COVID-19


As you have heard from our experts, identity is the key to creating relevant, valuable and empathetic messages to share with customers. Ultimately, brands can better address customer needs while still reaching key business objectives. Investing in understanding customers on and offline should be at the forefront for brands in order to have a successful holiday season this year, no matter what changes are thrown their way.

If you’re looking for more resources on how the election and holiday season will impact consumer spending, check out or recent webinar with eMarketer: The election & holiday 2020: Consumer insights for a proactive marketing plan.