Business Tips

The Retailer’s Guide to E-Commerce Holiday Sales, 2020 Edition


“The Holidays.” What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you think about your holiday readiness? Is it a Hollywood vision of snow-covered streets, gently lit by quaint street lamps? A packed shopping mall full of angry, stressed shoppers? The dinner you’ll spend all day preparing that your family may not approve of? A deep anxiety about being able to afford or provide the ideal holiday for your loved ones? Worry over finding the perfect gift? 

There are as many different versions of “The Holidays” around the world as there are people to consider the phrase – a myriad of hopes, desires, stressors, and fears. While shoppers are busy worrying and scurrying, e-commerce retailers have their hands just as full, trying to satisfy all of their consumers’ demands.

This is a monumental effort that starts months in advance of the actual “holidays” and ideally includes everything from trend forecasting through updating your online storefront to optimize conversion rates. It can be overwhelming for businesses and rightfully so.


We’re not here to tell you to relax. Just the opposite, actually! However, we’re here to provide your business with the tools it needs to successfully capitalize on the holiday selling season. 

As you navigate through The Retailer’s Approach to Holiday Shopping, 2020 Edition, feel free to jump to the sections that pertain most to your business. You can also check out our downloadable calendar that walks you through Holiday readiness and planning step-by-step!

  1. The Case for a Different Kind of Holiday Season
    1. Look back to look ahead
    2. Live in the now
  2. The Best Plan Is to Plan Ahead
  3. A Successive Approach to Holiday Selling
    1. Know thyself (and also your competitor)
    2. Set holiday and yearly sales goals
    3. Strategize
    4. Prioritize Flexibility
  4. A Step-By-Step Holiday Readiness Game Plan
    1. Optimize your storefront – including your checkout!
    2. Set holiday sales and promotions strategy
    3. Plan marketing and ad campaigns
    4. Down to the wire – shipping cutoff dates
    5. Update your Return Policy to reflect Holiday variables
  5. Get on Track
    1. Downloadable July through January calendar
    2. Different Holidays call for different approaches
  6. Take-aways: Resilience, Flexibility & Creativity

1. The Case for a Different Kind of Holiday Season

You don’t need us to tell you that 2020 has been a year for the history books (and we’re only halfway through)! Social Distancing and “Stay at Home” requirements to battle COVID-19 have hugely influenced e-commerce sales in general and will impact Holiday shopping in particular. It has also accelerated many trends that we’ve tracked for the past few Holiday Shopping seasons. 

Look Back to Look Ahead

In order to fully forecast shopper behavior for the 2020 Holiday season, we need to address trends from the past few seasons and then weave 2020 specific components into the mix. 

  • Shoppers Don’t Wait Until the Last Minute
    • By December 3, 2019, 50% of the season’s revenue was spent; with Cyber Week’s (Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday) share of the revenue gaining 18% over 2018
    • Shoppers may shop even earlier this year as they try to manage their budgets more carefully.

  • Cyber Week Will Be Huge
    • In 2019 e-commerce shoppers spent a whopping:
      • $4.2 billion on Thanksgiving day, up 14.5% from 2018
      • $7.4 billion on Black Friday with Average Order Value up 6% from 2018
      • $9.4 billion on Cyber Monday making it the largest shopping day ever in the history of the U.S. Sales after 10pm accounted for 30% of the day’s revenue.
      • There’s every indication that e-commerce sales will continue to grow.

  • Go Mobile or Go Home
    • Shoppers completing purchases on their mobile devices spent an average of $197 per order during the 2019 Holiday season, this is a 17% increase from 2018.
    • Retail Mobile App installations increased 106%.
    • Mobile use continues to accelerate each year, and 2020 will continue the trend.

  • Click and Collect
    • Shoppers increasingly want the option to purchase online and pick up at a store – 44% took advantage of this option over Black Friday weekend in 2019.
    • Even more shoppers are likely to do this now that they’ve experienced curbside pickup at stores because of COVID-19.

  • Strategic Marketing Is Key (Now and Always)
    • On peak Holiday Shopping days in 2019, 10% of e-commerce shoppers purchased products that were recommended based on Artificial Intelligence.
    • Paid advertising pays big, exactly one week before Christmas. Ad Badger found that on December 17 and 18, average impressions per user increased to over 60,000 – while Black Friday numbers hovered around 57,000.
    • The increase in time spent online this year means more ad impressions than ever before.

  • Opportunity is Knocking
    • 73% of e-commerce shoppers were new customers to the retailers they purchased from.
    • Of those new customers, 37% went on to make a 2nd purchase .
    • Conversion is key to capturing those shoppers this holiday season.

Live in the Now

Take the time to understand the overall trends for your specific industry. Don’t focus on where you wish your industry would be, but where it actually is. The new reality of people staying in their homes more (both as a work-from-home shift and also in order to social distance) has widely affected the marketplace. People are relying on digital sources more than ever to meet their needs and answer their problems. These changes have been felt acutely by small and mid-size businesses and e-commerce retailers – and it’s not all bad news. 

The past few months have encouraged shoppers to create new habits and online shopping behaviors – especially in the grocery, apparel and entertainment sectors.

*Morning Consult

Economic instability, however, is a real threat to e-commerce sales. Apparel sales tanked in March, down 13.6% from the same week in 2019 (although it’s been slowly rebounding). As of April 2020, 73% of leading apparel retailers were offering significant online sales with 53% of those retail sales events of the type usually reserved for Cyber Week. Keep your eye on recovery trends week-by-week for now – no one knows for sure how quick and how steep recovery might be.

In a recession, consumers will prioritize essentials such as groceries and transportation, leaving them with less discretionary income. However, even with economic instability, shoppers are more motivated than ever to make their purchases from the comfort of their homes. They also will look for creative solutions to manage their gift-giving budgets. E-commerce retailers – step up to the plate! 

2. The Best Plan Is to Plan Ahead

Let’s put the Holidays aside for just a moment. Guiding your e-commerce business through the COVID era is a feat unto itself. Whether you’re struggling with a loss of revenue or racing to scale your business at a breakneck speed – everything will be tested. This includes your staff and human resources, relationships with suppliers, cash flow, and everything in between. As terrifying as it may be, the opportunity for your business to come through this stronger and better able to weather challenges is tremendous. 

Before we walk through Holiday season planning step-by-step, there are a few business practices that are essential not just to Holiday seasons, but to all seasons. They’ve become even more relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

  • Diversify Your Supply
    • At the beginning of the pandemic, Chinese factories closed for several weeks. This wreaked havoc on American industries used to near-infinite supplies of low-cost goods from China. Let’s learn from this and buy our globally-sourced eggs from many, diverse baskets. 
  • Offer Omnichannel and Mobile Services 
    • Online retailers that offered curbside pickup had a real advantage as the coronavirus pandemic spread and cities around the U.S enacted restrictions. If consumer fear continues even after restrictions are lifted, e-commerce retailers may need to rethink some of their distribution strategies. We know how creative and inventive small and mid-size e-commerce retailers are. They quickly adapted to partner with brick and mortar stores to ease the process of customer returns. Another evolution may be in the works to provide customers with pickup options.
  • Keep Cash in the Bank and Maintain Strong Credit
    • Obviously. Businesses that have a cash reserve are in a stronger position to weather any storm. If the economy doesn’t rebound quickly, banks are likely to cut back on lending, making credit harder to come by. Just as consumers are tightening their belts, businesses must do so too. Now is the time to realize efficiencies and put a savings plan into place. You don’t want to have to cut back on inventory or advertising during a holiday retail sales slump. Do as much as you can to maintain a solid cash position.
  • Assess How Social Distancing and Any Other Laws or Safety Measures Affect Your Operations and Ability to Conduct Business
    • Are your essential operations and services protected? Do you need to implement safety measures to protect your staff and comply with local regulations? Prioritize your people above all else. 

3. A Successive Approach to Holiday Selling

Know Thyself (AND Your Competitors)

Now is the moment for deep introspection, backed up by data, of course. Get comfortable with your metrics. Review your yearly sales, especially for the past few holiday seasons. Which items are your best sellers? Does this vary seasonally? You will need this information to make informed inventory decisions. Which items sell the best that are also the most profitable for your business? You can use this information when offering sales or planning a paid ad campaign.

Do you have problem products or items which are returned more often than others? If so, perhaps you should discontinue or rethink these items before the holiday season starts in earnest. 

What went wrong last year? What are the red flags this year? Do you have supply chain issues or vendors that are more reliable than others? Did you start an ad campaign too late? Offer discounts that were too deep? Be honest, what do you wish you had done differently?

Your shoppers will be checking out the competition, so should you!



Private label products and experiences can offer your business a sharp advantage. Shoppers can’t compare items that they can’t get somewhere else. Most retailers will increase their offerings of unique products by 10-20% in the coming decade.

Set Holiday and Yearly Sales Goals

You can’t outdo yourself if you don’t set the expectation to begin with. Plot your yearly and holiday sales numbers on a graph to see the actual trends. Have your online sales increased at a steady 5% every year? Does your graph look like a mountain range – up one year and down the next? Can you forecast the Holiday 2020 season based on your business’s data from the previous few years? Now layer the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic onto your projections. Is your industry up overall? Is it severely hurting? You don’t want to purchase inventory and plan for a blockbuster Holiday season if your industry has been gravely affected by recent events. Likewise, you may want to stock up early if your sector has seen an increase in total retail sales. Set your seasonal goals honestly – then aim to beat them. 


What we really mean is, “how much will it cost to meet your goals?” Hint: budgets are your best friend. Everything has an associated cost – additional staff, marketing content, ad spend, inventory, etc. Look at your current spending and determine what will be needed to meet your Holiday sales goals. Given your current financial circumstances, are your goals realistic? Too conservative? Next, review your Holiday expenditure from last year. Did you allocate enough resources? Where could you have cut back? What areas needed more attention? What new efforts will you undertake this year? Take the time to budget properly. You can always adjust as you go, but having a realistic spending plan will be the key to realizing big profits this holiday season. 

Prioritize Flexibility

The future will always remain a mystery. How we react to changing conditions is what matters. Businesses that were able to pivot on a dime were the true champions of the COVID-19 crisis. How can your business be more flexible? This resilience and willingness to adapt may be your business’s best assets in the upcoming holiday season and beyond. 

4. A Step-By-Step Holiday Readiness Game Plan

Optimize Your Storefront – Including Your Checkout!

Make sure your website is optimized for mobile and tablet devices.



Your site should load fast. Every second your page fails to load decreases conversion rates by 20%. For an in-depth look on how to up your overall retail game, see our Ultimate Guide to Increasing Conversion Rates.

Add a Buy-Now-Pay-Later solution to your checkout. Even before COVID-19, millennials had a rocky relationship with debt. Many have crushing student loans and are extremely wary of taking on even more liabilities – especially in the form of credit cards. Yet the cost of living has increased as wages have remained stagnant and as of 2019, over half of millennials had credit-card debt; 84% of them were stressed out about it. Enter COVID-19, where the economic fallout of the pandemic is hitting millennials and Gen Z harder than other age groups.

If shoppers can’t afford to make a purchase and don’t want to incur credit card debt, what is a retailer to do? Remember layaway? Shoppers would make payments towards the total balance of a purchase over a long period of time, without accruing interest or fees. The retailer would keep the item until the entire payment was fulfilled and once paid off, the shopper could pick up their purchase. Layaway is back. But different. And better. It’s called Buy-Now-Pay-Later. Retailers get paid right away. Shoppers get their purchases right away. Amazing!

Buy-Now-Pay-Later options can be a godsend for shoppers looking to manage their debt, while still providing them with the option to make a purchase – all without accruing interest. Splitit, for example, lets online shoppers set up monthly payments at checkout with their existing credit so they don’t need to carry new debt. This is an incredible checkout tool for the retailer and an option that shoppers will greatly appreciate.

Set Holiday Sales and Promotions Strategy

The lead-up to the Holiday season – especially “Back to School” and Halloween provides ample opportunity to A/B test your messaging and find out what resonates with holiday shoppers. 

The lure of bargains and discounts is the strongest driving force for shoppers to try a new online retailer. Plan to offer discounts on items that are the most profitable – where you have a little wiggle room before the reduced price hurts your bottom line. 

Create a sense of urgency by offering flash sales as the Holiday shopping season winds down. This can be great for a product with mediocre popularity but fantastic profitability. As the window of opportunity closes, shoppers will be more inclined to follow through on purchases while getting a good deal. 

Plan Marketing and Ad Campaigns

Opt for a multipronged approach – social media, paid ads, and email.

Social Media outreach is key to getting your products in front of potential customers.

*Ecommerce Nation

Here’s where your A/B Call to Action testing will really pay off. Show potential customers the value they will get from shopping with you (promotions, experience) and use messaging that you know has proven to be effective. Anticipate and plan for the inevitable cart abandonment that comes with new visitors. Have enticing emails and retargeting ads at the ready.

Paid Ads will likely be a huge component of your Holiday marketing. Current data regarding PPC (Pay-Per-Click) advertising trends is incredibly valuable. The impact of COVID-19 has thrown so many curveballs at retailers this Holiday season and PPC data can help decipher consumer behavior in almost real time. We can see that the following industry segments have realized gains or held steady so far in 2020:

  • Health/Medical
  • Business Management
  • Office Supplies
  • Beauty and Personal Care
  • Greetings, Gifts, Flowers
  • Home Improvement
  • Home Furniture

Retail is tricky. The industry has seen an increase in activity as shoppers replace going to brick and mortar establishments with e-commerce. Other shoppers, however, are unsure of their future income and are tightening their belts. Overall PPC conversion rates for retail are down 14%. However, because this trend is being felt across the industry, large retailers, including Amazon, have greatly reduced their Google Ad budgets, driving down the CPC (Cost Per Click) for ads enough, approximately 9%, that many retailers’ ROAS (Return on Ad Spend) have actually stayed level.

What does this mean for your e-commerce business? It means that you have to be strategic. Consider going all out on your paid ad presence on December 17 and 18 – exactly one week before Christmas, while potentially being a bit more conservative throughout the rest of the season. 

Connecting with your customers via their email address may well be the most inexpensive and cost-effective strategy that you employ. Go with what you know. Use past transaction history to segment your shoppers and send them deals they can’t refuse. You already have this data. Use it. Specifically target offers to holiday shoppers based on what they’ve spent and purchased in the past. 

Email is also an invaluable tool to help reduce cart abandonment. Over 45% of emails sent to shoppers regarding abandoned carts are opened, 21% are clicked on and of those, 50% of shoppers will go on to complete their purchases.

The bottom line – have email addresses and campaigns for every occasion in your pocket and don’t hold back on sending them!

Down to the Wire – Shipping Cutoff Dates

The longer it takes for a product to reach the shopper, the higher the cart abandonment rate. 



On the other side of this coin, you don’t want returns from disappointed holiday shoppers who did not get their items as promised. Be clear about your shipping cutoff dates. Offer promotions to holiday shoppers who place orders in the nick of time. If you can, offer your shoppers ultra fast shipping (past the general cutoff date), even if they have to pay a premium for it. 

Shopper expectations are one thing. But what about your inventory and warehouse systems? In order to physically get items from A to B in the promised timeframe, the time from sale completion to order fulfillment is shorter than ever. To say that efficiency is necessary is a gross understatement. Do you have the staff necessary to quickly process an increased amount of orders? Is your warehouse prepared? Is there anything that you can do to create a smoother shipping process before the holiday orders start rolling in. 

Update Your Return Policy to Reflect Holiday Variables

Your Return Policy is probably the most important and most read document on your website. If your Return Policy is lacking in clarity or inspiration, fix it yesterday. See our guide for Rethinking Return Policies here. Take the time to update your Return Policy to reflect any nuances that the Holiday season may bring up. Are sale items returnable for a full refund or store credit only? If you normally have a 30-day return window, will it be extended to account for gifting timelines? Make sure these variables are clearly spelled out. Remember that a lenient policy is preferable. This is where you can really stand out from your competitors:


5. Get on Track

With so much to do and organize, it’s all too easy to careen from one task to another without strategically making a progressive plan to carry your business to and through the Holiday shopping season. Our month-by-month calendar from July through January provides basic timelines and deadlines to help you make the most of your holiday planning. Download it now!

Different holidays call for different approaches

While some industry experts lump Back To School and Halloween in with “The Holidays” – we don’t. We prefer a different approach, where both Back To School and Halloween are “Pre Holidays,” used as testing grounds for the larger holiday season that occupies the calendar from November through the first week of January. Read “Your All-in-One Plan to Holiday Successto see the full list of dates and what you should start doing to get going now. 

6. Take-aways: Resilience, Flexibility & Creativity

A “normal” Holiday Season poses endless challenges for e-commerce businesses. The 2020 Holidays, however, carry with them the unknown impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and a very uncertain economy. All businesses, especially e-commerce oriented retailers, are being forced to evolve with a constantly changing marketplace that demands resilience, flexibility and creativity. 

As entrepreneurs and business owners, we must face this holiday season and our rapidly changing world with radical optimism and a spirit of achievement. The innovation, efficiencies and ingenuity that will surely come to light this holiday season, have the potential to change our industry for the better. That can only be a good thing for both shoppers and retailers.

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