shutterstock_160880540.jpgThe holidays are here. There are only 47 days until Christmas. And this year, the first full night of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving coincide for the first time since 1888.

For the holiday shopper, time is of the essence. For the retailer, if you're not prepared to handle Black Friday sales, Cyber Deals and last-minute shopping, you'll be hard-pressed to meet the needs of your customers. Most of them expect to find what they want, when and where they want it.

The Holidays Are Upon Us

Not many people are immune from holiday shopping. And now thanks to the proliferation of mobile devices, holiday shopping can be done from a variety of sources — in-store, mobile and desktop. No matter where customers are, most expect to have the experience stay the same.

Customers are more tech savvy now and have no patience for fragmented customer service, inconsistent marketing or inadequate inventory. 

It used to be easy. Stores didn't start to prepare for the holiday season until after Thanksgiving, and there was a reasonable expectation that you shopped when the stores were open and if you missed out — last minute shoppers were relegated to drugstores and carryouts for their purchases. 

As shopping online became popular, retailers needed not only to maintain an active in-store presence, but also manage inventory online as well. Some stores stay open 24-hours between Thanksgiving and Christmas, making it easier than ever to find the perfect gift at any hour.

Add to that the fact that many companies are online only.  Now retailers not only have to compete with other retailers but e-tailers, too. It's no wonder that the customer experience is more important than ever. 

If you're not focused on turning customers from browsers into buyers, you can bet that they will go elsewhere to make their purchases. Customers want the best deals — and they'll do whatever they can to get them, from showrooming from their mobile device in brick-and-mortar stores to having price alerts sent to their phones. Yet a fair amount of shoppers avoid stores altogether during the holidays. How can retailers prepare to handle omnichannel marketing and help customers find the best products at the right prices? 

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The Holiday Customer Experience

First, having a strategy is key. How do you plan to keep customer service agents, cashiers and other holiday first responders up-to-date on product information, featured discounts and inventory changes? Ensuring that they have not only been trained to handle the onslaught of questions that will arise in the store, on the phone and across social media, but that they are effectively sharing information with one another so they can best prepare to meet the needs of cranky customers. 

Second, leverage as much real time data as you can to offer up promotions to compete with competitors, make room for more inventory or respond to customer behaviors to facilitate purchases. You've been collecting and monitoring massive amounts of data all year -- the holiday season is the time to put into action!

Finally, since the holidays can put customer demand into overtime, many companies hire seasonal employees to help with the extra hours stores will be open and customer support will be available online. These new hires need to be just as informed as your regular employees about trends and goals the company plan to capitalize on this season. Build incentives into your sales goals to help motivate seasonal employees to meet or exceed them. Engage with them to learn more about in-store trends or frequently asked questions so that you streamline marketing messages. 

The holiday shopping season needn't be a stressful time provided you have sufficiently planned to offer a customer experience that is consistent across all channels, in a way that optimizes the customers' time and money. Many customers are willing to pay more for an extraordinary experience -- especially if it means that they can complete their holiday purchases sooner. That means you may be able to charge more if you offer free or expedited shipping in return; or offer risk free returns and extended warranties. 

There is much money to be made this holiday season, so don't let a poor customer experience stand in the way of your bottom line. 

image credit: Shutterstock / Africa Studio