What Cyber Week is telling us about the rest of the holiday season

Eric Morris / December 2020

This year’s Black Friday, Cyber Monday (BFCM) was a historic weekend that reflects the way shopping’s centre of gravity has shifted online, with important implications for retailers seeking to plan for the rest of the holiday season.

Retail observers expected that second-wave shopping restrictions across the country would shift consumer activity online at record-breaking levels. By the Tuesday before BFCM, Canadian retailers already were seeing web searches, traffic and sales that surpassed the previous year’s peaks.

The end result was an elongation of a typically concentrated shopping weekend with more activity online than ever before. As consumer behaviour continues to evolve and COVID-related restrictions define this holiday season, here are some key insights that retailers may consider as they plan for the remainder of the calendar year.

Prepare for more peaks as shoppers change buying habits

In past years, we’ve seen 53% of all holiday shopping happen after BFCM,1 with searches for gifts typically peaking during the second week of December.

A Google/Ipsos holiday study from December 2019 found that more people shop the week before Christmas than at any other time.2

We expect that peak to arrive earlier this year by several weeks. Why? The size of BFCM confirmed the unprecedented extent that shoppers are changing their buying habits. Yet questions abound. Will bricks-and-mortar locations stay open for in-store shopping? Will a given region go into lockdown? Will supply-chain logistics transport last-minute gifts in time for Christmas?

This year has no guarantees. Consequently, we’re expecting even the last-minute procrastinators to advance their purchasing decisions. That means the first and second week of December could be the busiest time of all for e-commerce as shoppers make their choices earlier.

The takeaway? Don’t rest after BFCM. With shipping deadlines looming, these next few weeks could become the holiday surge’s most important ever.

BFCM may be over but last-minute shoppers can be the most valuable customers

Aside from the quantitative data on overall shopping traffic, retail statistics suggest an important nuance in the qualitative attributes of last-minute shoppers front-loading their purchasing decisions. Speaking as someone with considerable personal experience in this area, consumers who put off their purchasing until the arrival of holiday deadlines represent some of merchants’ most attractive customers. BFCM may be over but your most valuable customers are still out there and likely to come at the last minute.

Businesses would be well-advised to accommodate procrastinating consumers. In the case of e-commerce, that could mean extended hours for curbside pickups.

Why? Because last-minute shoppers aren’t as sale sensitive as those seeking deals during BFCM. They also convert to make purchases at much higher rates. Last year, in the final week before Christmas, shoppers on average made 3.5 purchases3 — the highest number of purchases prior to Christmas. More specifically, a remarkable 82% of shopping occasions are converted to purchases between December 19 to Christmas Day.4

Our takeaway here is that businesses would be well-advised to accommodate procrastinating consumers. In the case of e-commerce, that could mean extended hours for curbside pickups later in the holiday season, as well as inventory levels that provide options for as long as possible.

Small Business Saturday promotion resonated with consumers

Given the way local merchants have suffered due to pandemic restrictions, politicians and retail advocates promoted the Saturday of BFCM as a special occasion that encouraged consumers to focus their shopping on smaller, neighbourhood vendors.

As residents become aware of the economic effects of restrictions, they are rallying around neighbourhood merchants.

Our data indicated this message resonated with shoppers. According to Google Trends, search interest for “local businesses” was five times higher than it was the same time last year. Interestingly, search interest for “local businesses” has doubled compared to the pandemic’s early months. As residents become aware of the economic effects of restrictions, they are rallying around neighbourhood merchants. This works on a regional level, too, with “local business” search activity highest in Manitoba, where lockdowns have been particularly restrictive.

The takeaway here? Previously, small merchants relied on foot traffic and in-store sales for the majority of their commerce. Now even the most local vendors would benefit from providing their customers with the ability to shop online. Anecdotally, within Google Canada, as the holiday season approached many of our team members shared recommendations of local shops to frequent. We’ve been proud to support small businesses across the country on their journey online through ShopHERE powered by Google, our program in partnership with Digital Main Street. Graduates include such local retailers as the Toronto-based tea shop, Plentea, and One Arrow Meats, a Vancouver-based butcher owned by the Cree-Metis chef, Heat Laliberté, among many others in our communities.

In our experience, the shops that provided the best e-commerce experiences didn’t try to compete with the major online retailers on factors like price. Rather, these merchants understood that customers were willing to spend a little more in exchange for personal touches and neighbourhood proximity. So they aimed to provide distinctive, local touches, such as area-specific products. Some used first names for curbside pickup. Others walked a few blocks to hand-deliver an order within an hour or two of its placement. When it comes to local, the little things matter.

Finding opportunity in challenge

We’ve declared before that 2020 was Canada’s e-commerce moment. BFCM was the weekend that confirmed it. The challenge now for retailers is how to navigate the rest of the holiday buying season. The shifts reflected in a historic BFCM suggest that more peaks for e-commerce are yet to come. Last-minute shoppers can be the most valuable customers — so retailers should seek to accommodate them. And small businesses can continue to benefit from customers seeking to make local, neighbourhood purchases by adding little, personal touches to their service. Despite the uncertainty that has pervaded the pandemic, 2020’s holiday season has yielded an incredible opportunity for retailers — and it’s only just begun.

Canada’s e-commerce moment is now: Here’s what retailers need to know