The dust has barely settled on Halloween and we’re already straight into Christmas trading, with retailers ramping up their marketing activities around early seasonal promotions such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

This is a critical moment for our industry, as the people, processes and systems behind each business are about to be tested to their maximum capacity – and there is little time left to iron out last minute glitches that could impact the customer experience leading up to Christmas.

For offline shopping in particular, the stress that will be placed on the store in the coming weeks will be phenomenal. We’ve already discussed retailers that are getting their in-store customer experiences right, such as Apple. However, for many companies, creating seamless bricks-and-mortar encounters is a work in progress, and the holiday trading period puts their weaknesses under a microscope.

Pressure to not only give customers what they want for Christmas, but impress them at the same time, has increased exponentially in recent years. And the global growth of Black Friday has almost single-handedly changed the way people shop; starting the season with a major commerce spike, rather than the traditional slow build throughout December.

As a result, retailers need to bring their A-game to store experiences right from the start of their holiday campaigns, or risk customer satisfaction levels declining, and losing business later in the month to better-equipped rivals. And to make this even more challenging, the definition of a good customer experience is continually evolving; what delighted customers last year or the year before, may not hold up in 2015.

For example, in 2013, the concept of order online, collect in store was still in trial status. This holiday season, click-and-collect will play a more important role than ever before, which immediately drives more footfall to the store.

This is fantastic in theory, as not only is order fulfilment cheaper, but the customer often makes impromptu purchases when collecting their initial order, increasing their value to the retailer.

However, when the store is incredibly busy, sales associates need to process these orders without it impairing the customer experience for either those collecting pre-paid purchases, or those making processes direct from the store.

Some market-leading retailers are ahead of the game in dealing with this challenge, and have invested in mobile POS technology that allows them to ‘queue bust’ at peak periods, or to siphon off click-and-collect customers from standard transactions.

However, festive success is more than having the digital devices to do the job; it’s imperative that the roles of in-store personnel are optimized for the demands of the omnichannel shopper.

The quality of interaction that shoppers receive is dependent as much on the skills of the store associates using that hardware, as the devices themselves. The store is no longer just a place for sales – it is a customer service touch point, a distribution center and a fulfilment location, and retail staff are expected to switch seamlessly between these roles.

For the majority of retailers, the holiday season is the litmus test for their bricks-and-mortar experience. If they can get it right in the coming weeks, then they are sailing through to 2016. If they get it wrong, though, the damage done could impact customer relationships well into the New Year.

Therefore, while it might be too late to implement new store technologies to surprise and delight shoppers this holiday season, there’s still time to refine the roles and capabilities of store associates ahead of peak trading.

Retailers need to make sure their front-line workforce are prepared for the pressures the store will face from all sides this December, and continually learn lessons from the commerce spikes that will occur throughout the coming weeks.

After all, Black Friday will be the first big test – but it won’t be the last. Those who fall at the first hurdle still have time to pick themselves up and make vital improvements.

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