With the holiday shopping season now kicking off even earlier than Black Friday, many brands are finding they must talk about more than discounts to stand out amid the rush.
Black Friday – the day after Thanksgiving when some shoppers line up outside stores before dawn to get the best deals on electronics and other popular items – has traditionally been viewed as the start of the holiday shopping season. However, that image is fading, forcing brands to reconsider how they reach consumers during the busiest time of year for retailers.
“While Black Friday is still an important tradition, [for brands] it's become more of a state of mind rather than just a day,” says Holly Gillentine, executive director of consumer marketing at GolinHarris. “It's a continuum extending online, in store, and across the month of November.”
This week, Sears Holdings said Sears and Kmart stores will open on Thanksgiving, joining a number of retailers including JC Penney, Macy's, Kohl's, and Toys R Us that open their doors and offer deals before Black Friday. These stores are playing up their early openings to grab the attention of consumers, who expect more than discounts from their shopping experiences, says Kathy Grannis, senior director at the National Retail Federation.
“Retailers are looking to provide that overall value – longer store hours, mobile and online shopping opportunities, and free shipping – because it's not just about price anymore,” she adds.
The organization expects that holiday sales during November and December will increase 3.9% to $602.1 billion, slightly more than the 3.5% holiday season sales growth in 2012.
Some companies, such as Sears, are highlighting the benefits of their loyalty programs to draw in holiday shoppers. Sears' program, Shop Your Way, will offer “special opportunities for members” during the season, says PR director Brian Hanover. The retailer is focusing on building a community of loyal customers, whom they reach out to through a range of channels including social media.
“We are regularly engaging with our members and customers, alerting them to holiday deals, but it's more of a conversation,” Hanover adds. “We wouldn't be able to build a follower base if we were constantly pushing promotions.”
Building a loyal customer base lends itself to creating personalized messages for consumers, which is more important than ever during the holiday season, according to PR experts.
“Customization and personalization is key,” Gillentine says.
One brand using this strategy is PetSmart, which is allowing customers to pick their pets' favorite gifts and share their holiday wish lists through Facebook and Twitter.
PetSmart is also an example of how Black Friday offerings go well beyond the consumer electronics space, which had traditionally hogged much of the spotlight on that day. Other types of companies are now seeing opportunities to differentiate themselves during the season.
For example, rum brand Blue Chair Bay is taking a contrarian approach to Black Friday by dubbing it “Blue Friday,” promoting relaxation instead of shopping. The company is holding a Facebook contest in which the grand prize is a trip to a beach.
“Everybody's duking it out with the lowest price and the earliest opening hours, but how do you represent a point of difference? What other kind of experience can you offer?” asks Rob Bratskeir, EVP, creative director, and GM of the New York office at 360 Public Relations. “So much of it is white noise after a while, so what else can you talk about?”
The impact of Cyber Monday
Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving and a day when many online retail promotions take place, has also raised the stakes for brands on Black Friday and throughout the holiday season.
“Cyber Monday is equally as big now,” explains Michael Olguin, founder and president of Formula PR. “We've become such an online shopping marketplace, but also more of a technology consumer – it's definitely raised the bar.”
Consumers are more often choosing to wait for online offers rather than in-store deals during the hectic holiday season. To keep pace with this change, it is imperative for companies' marketing and PR teams to collaborate, say communications executives.
“[Brands] have to create as much of an integrated experience as they can. If they have a plan just built on a single channel, such as email blasts, but nothing connects to each other, they're going to miss out,” says Margaret Murphy, president of Olson's 1to1 loyalty and CRM practice. “We're busy during the holidays. If you communicate with us and flow through that path, we're going to give you more of a chance.”
For the first time, FedEx is forecasting that its busiest day of this year – and in company history – will be Cyber Monday on December 2. The company ships about 10 million packages on an average day, but on its busiest day, that number more than doubles to approximately 22 million.
FedEx and its communications team prepare for the holiday season year-round, planning initiatives to highlight new offerings such as FedEx One Rate, its flat-rate shipping option. This week, the company unveiled its “FedEx One Rate, Countless Possibilities through Education” holiday giving program. For every shipment sent with One Rate, and for social media messages using the hashtag #countlesspossibilities, FedEx will donate $1 to Teach for America.
“The point is that we are fully integrated now,” explains Patrick Fitzgerald, SVP of integrated marketing and communications at FedEx. “For those launches, how we communicate and market using channels from social and online to traditional TV and PR, it's all integrated together to ensure we have a consistent and effective voice to customers.”