‘Christmas in July’ isn’t just a promotional sales tactic in mid-July to boost customer engagement, or a 1940’s movie title. In my experience, it stands for the prime month to kickoff combined efforts of a retailer’s cross-functional teams in researching and strategizing an action plan to execute a more successful omni-channel holiday sales season. Brick-and-mortar based retailers have traditionally worked during summers to plan for the holiday execution in stores, but unfortunately, digital is often an afterthought. The notion of “digital is easy to fix, so we don’t have to worry about it yet” is a misnomer. That can result in projects to be delayed, and often a lot of guesswork instead of an educated approach. No one will argue that recent holiday seasons have seen huge shifts in customer shopping behavior, mostly that result in digital driving the bulk of sales and brick-and-mortar declining. But there is huge opportunity to harness the information that digital provides for a retailer to act upon in an omni-channel approach. July is the perfect mid-year date to pause, reflect, and form a holiday task force to determine what approaches your teams need to take in order to avoid a painful holiday season. For the best results, I believe this starts with your Project Management and Digital Merchandising teams. My blog series will focus on helpful tips for these teams to develop strong partnerships in order to execute efficiently and purposefully. Let’s get started with 5 tips that I’ve used in my past that I believe are even more relevant today.
Identify and officially form your ‘Holiday Task Force’ team:
This team, driven by project management, comprises top performers and leads of cross-functional departments that will act as the point people throughout planning and execution of all tasks related to holiday initiatives. Also, this team should not only include managers or supervisors, but also include a few team members from lower ranking roles. Why? The troops on the ground are often the most resourceful at helping to trouble-shoot known issues, and may also be faster at identifying solutions based on the systems they work within daily. If they are hourly, ensure that they have appropriate time reserved to meet or work on related tasks for holiday planning. The upfront expense of this will most likely pay off in achieving efficiencies overall once the holidays are over. The assigned Project Manager would develop a team meeting schedule, easily-accessible tracking documents, and gather priorities from each department on their holiday tasks – we’ll also discuss this in a future blog.
Share the wealth of information at the right time:
Merchandising teams are a readily available wealth of customer engagement information, known brand or product launches, and can usually name top-selling products off the top of their heads. This goes for both in-store and digital merchandising teams. They understand the traffic patterns, most-used product finding methods (search, navigation, product recommendations), and can also speak to when customers initially started shopping for holiday gifts. Unfortunately, they can be overlooked in planning or are often tasked with just executing the holiday floor set or digital experiences. From a project management standpoint, there is better efficiency gained when there is clear understanding of the knowledge this team can provide, since it’s all based on known customer behavior and sales. Marketing, Buying offices, Creative, Customer Service, and Operations will benefit from knowing what works, and doesn’t work, within merchandising efforts. The merchandising information will help cross-functional team members to fill in gaps within their own holiday data; failed product searches, days with highest sales velocity, products with known issues, most-effective marketing tactics, and inventory issues are examples of data that can be gathered and compiled by project management. It’s far more effective, and grounding, to go into the holiday kickoff meeting knowing this information upfront – then its more “real” and actionable for the current season’s initiatives, and provides true omni-channel perspective.
Know your holiday post-mortem realities and embrace them:
Hopefully, your organization performed post-mortem recap reports from the last holiday or fourth quarter sales periods. However, depending on the teams that created these recaps, they may only contain information that is beneficial to their day-to-day tasks, such as social media marketing or order fulfillment. Using the cross-functional team information gathered, the task force project manager will be able to more effectively compile an overarching report that brings together the various teams’ information. Similarly to my point in tip #2, the data in this document can then also be used to create the project schedule and tasks associated for the new holiday initiatives, especially by removing the ‘mystery’ around what priorities need to be addressed. For example, a specific vendor’s hot new electronic toy may not have arrived to warehouses in time last year to be distributed to stores, or be live online, by the time advertising was published. Knowing these pain points upfront, and identifying potentially known issues, will save buckets of time and money across departments and drive a cohesive plan forward. Understand what you did well, and also what proves to be a consistent struggle.
The customer is always right:
It may be cliché to say, but it’s always true. No matter what you, or your organization thinks, the customer will always have a final say in whether or not they want to do business with you. In the digital age, this is even more true thanks to user-generated content and social media. These give the customer an instant voice, and the best brands understand how to harness this information and make it work for them while keeping the focus on the customer. As a project manager, much of the last year’s holiday post-mortem information can be gathered from these channels, especially from the customer’s point of view. We’ll discuss this in a future blog, but my point of mentioning it here is to ensure that the task force team includes members of social media and teams that manage product ratings and reviews. This helps to level-set expectations in many cases, as there are usually trends that emerge from these forms of feedback, and help companies understand what their customers really think is important. If your retail organization does not allow for ratings and reviews or user-generated content on your website, then it’s truly a point of consideration to implement – especially for sales conversion. A customer will most often trust another customer’s assessment of a product, regardless of any promotional or marketing materials from a brand.
Finally, process works for a reason – people need structure in order to stay on task and realize a goal. However, if the process is too complicated, or doesn’t address real issues, then it’s doomed to fail. Project managers succeed when there is acceptance across the board from all stakeholders of a project. But if a project manager doesn’t understand the true needs of a project from the onset, then unfortunately there is a high probability of major struggle in the execution. Also, new processes should complement the daily schedules and priority work that needs to be accomplished across cross-functional teams. In many cases, it’s easier to talk about what doesn’t work well – but this is also the opportunity to discover if an effective process can be duplicated to address a process that doesn’t work well. In my personal work history, it was discovered during one of these meetings that a cumbersome inter-department form wasn’t being fully utilized by the team receiving it. By identifying a simpler means to communicate information back and forth, our team was able to shave 2 weeks off a 6 week process. In relation to the holiday season, that can be hugely beneficial for teams that simply need every hour in their day to keep up with sales and operations.
In my upcoming blogs, we’ll get more into holiday project management for digital and how to adjust for scalability within the size of the organization. My hope is that these blogs can spark positive conversations within teams, provide guidance, and alleviate a bit of the anxiety that often comes along with the holiday season for retailers.