Avoiding a nightmare before Christmas: how search data is guiding retail marketing strategies

With search trackers highlighting yet another unusual Christmas sales pattern, how can you make sure you’re ready for Santa?

It may be the season of unpredictability but the more information you have the more opportunities will open up, says Adam Freeman, Managing Partner of MediaVision…

I hate to bring bad seasonal tidings but Christmas will be challenging this year, with the impact of Brexit, new COVID-19 variants, supply chain issues, fuel costs and deepening concerns over sustainability making for a highly irregular consumer market.

Although over the long term these macro trends could play out in a variety of unforeseen ways, the impact on our current shopping behaviours is more immediately clear. And that means we need to know how our marketing strategies should accommodate them.

Purchase research came early this year

So what has changed? According MediaVision’s digital demand tracker analysing data from AdWords and Google Trends, people began researching their Christmas purchases online as early as mid-July this year, a good five to six weeks ahead of the traditional up-tick in seasonal interest.

Indeed, during the period 31 July to 31 October 2021, online searches for ‘Christmas turkey’ almost doubled (up 88 percent) compared to the same period in 2020, signalling both earlier and increased interest, no doubt triggered by headlines warning of shortages. 

Searches for ‘vegetarian Christmas dinner’ were also up 210 percent, and ‘vegan Christmas dinner’ by 150 percent. 

People want to celebrate and connect

And people are not just concerned about securing products early to avoid disappointment: after a dud Christmas in lockdown last year, people are in the mood to celebrate and connect. For example, searches for ‘Christmas dresses for women’ jumped an enormous 628 percent compared to 2020, while searches for ‘Christmas jumpers’ were up by 69 percent.

Similar spikes were recorded across the board, from advent calendars to office Christmas parties. There was also a spike in early September in searches for ‘buy now pay later’ options (20 percent higher than 2020), a trend that usually spikes in late October. 

Searches for ‘pay in instalments’ also lifted 120 percent during September, suggesting that consumers are not only shopping earlier, but looking to spread out the cost of Christmas.

Abnormal demand and out-of-sync messaging

The problem for marketers, particularly in the retail sectors, is keeping pace with abnormal demand and synchronising messages and offers accordingly. 

Ordinarily, retailers will complete their promotions for Black Friday and then think about Christmas, yet this year the traditional marketing calendar has been thrown into disarray. Consequently, retailers will need to consider a behaviour change in shoppers which could result in the need to offer stronger discounting, extended return periods and perhaps even a stronger USP to cut through the noise.

Indeed, marketing messages may need a complete rethink – or at the very least acknowledgement that our shopping behaviours have been altered.

This is already playing out with the larger retailers: just look at the #TeamEarly Christmas ad from online retailer Studio.co.uk, or Very.com, whose Christmas ad arrived 85 days early and –in what must be a world first – featured confused trick-or-treaters.

The season’s traditional big hitter, John Lewis, also arrived earlier this year – again because the retailer had recognised a surge in online searches for festive gifts.

Although there is a risk shoppers will grow fatigued by stretching the Christmas shopping period out so far – and in future years retailers will need to be careful managing this trend – planning early in 2021 certainly appears to be a legitimate business necessity that matches the data for consumer demand.

Planning for the (expected) unexpected

Meanwhile, another necessity will be preparing for further disruption and ensuring contingency plans are in place in the event that high-street footfall does not meet expectations – after all, given the unpredictable events of the last two years, anything could happen, and the risk of further restrictions remains quite real.

We’ve already seen a lot of high-street and luxury retailers strengthen their e-commerce offering during the pandemic, such as by offering better delivery and payment options, investing in customer services and improving front-end websites. Having such operations running well will be the backbone of Christmas success should restrictions return.

There are also apparent logistical issues for some retailers, especially those with goods being produced in Vietnam and surrounding areas. E-commerce retailers may be wise to buy stock that can be produced with shorter transport times to fill any gaps in their offering. Or, at the very least, have the marketing team factor these risks into product availability messaging, to manage consumer expectations.

Inflation is on the rise

Finally, there is one last worry on the horizon which could have major consequences for retail marketing as we head into the new year. Inflation is set to rise, and last month Unilever – FMCG producer of many household favourites, from Marmite to Dove – raised prices by 4.1 percent, citing rising costs of packaging, energy and distribution.

If inflation accelerates further, and most analysts expect it will, then retailers will be forced to make further price considerations, which will inevitably impact marketing messages and plans.

This means we must learn to read the data and use it to make the most informed decisions regarding consumer demand and sentiment, and plan accordingly. 

2021 remains volatile, but understanding the mood and behaviour of the market means opportunities – such as switching brands, or redefining value for customers – open up. It just needs a close eye on the smaller details in the search bar to help navigate the bigger trends that continue to affect us all.

By Adam Freeman

Managing Partner