A digital Christmas? Rapid customer research could make the difference between success and failure during a crucial peak season.

19 October 2023

As a challenging year of falling or static sales hurtles into November, a crucial Christmas trading period looms large. One thing seems certain; with brands and retailers facing fierce competition for a share of depressed peak spend, there is no room for mistakes.

As we head into peak trading, uncertainty reigns. While many brands and retailers remain optimistic, predicting year-on-year sales growth, customers tell a very different story. All the signs are that the cost of living crisis will seriously impact Christmas spending, with the more doom-laden predictions suggesting a £3bn shortfall compared with 2022.

The only sensible conclusion, based on those predictions, is that this year’s peak will be more competitive than ever before – and that the winners and losers will be decided according to their success in meeting the needs of demanding, unpredictable customers.

Is going to be a battle and, with 64% of customers planning to do ‘the majority’ of seasonal shopping online [1], it seems likely to be fought mainly via digital channels.

The solution, however, is disarmingly simple and we can help you take action by running meaningful customer research in days rather than weeks – and, even at this late stage, it can provide the actionable insight required to adapt and optimise.


No room for misfiring campaigns

All the uncertainty clearly puts huge pressure on long-planned Christmas campaigns. They simply have to be on the money, striking the right tone and backed by digital experiences that are slick, easy and which address well-understood customer needs. There can be no guesswork, and in a rapidly changing world, it is dangerous to assume that campaigns planned months ago will still resonate today.

Clearly, it is too late to go back to the drawing board, but even small tweaks now could make all the difference – from refining messaging to fixing ‘low hanging fruit’ usability issues, even the smallest changes can deliver big returns at this time of year.

That said, with customers expected to shop early this Christmas, brands and retailers do not have the luxury of time.


Rapid research: Customers have the answers

Rapid customer research can give us important clues ahead of another peak that seems likely to be mainly digital, and at a time when customer behaviour, needs and motivations are so opaque. It can help to tell us about the quite specific customer needs that will shape buying behaviour, such as

  • Practical and transactional needs like price, delivery times and charges, returns and so on
  •  Likely responses to campaign messaging and content – and opportunities to derive additional value, for instance in areas like loyalty and membership.
  • How people will shop – for instance, whether marketplaces will dominate as customers seek out bargains.

It can also deliver vital customer experience insight - assessing everything from site performance and friction in the journey to the placement of campaign content, all of which will be more important than ever this year. After all, no one wants to see well-executed, innovative campaigns derailed by customer experience issues.

The good news is rapid customer research doesn't need to be based on anything approaching a final design or treatment. Even research based on sketched-out concepts can tell us what is likely to work in this challenging reality, what issues might emerge later, and the tweaks and optimisations that are likely to enhance campaign visibility and performance, or remove friction from the customer experience.

Make no mistake, that kind of input is not just good practice; in these uncertain times, putting customer feedback at the heart of campaign planning could make the difference between success and failure this Christmas.


In Action: Customer-centric Design

This is not just theory. This is an approach that forward-thinking, customer-centric retail brands are already taking.

They recognise that rapid research is not just a new approach - it’s about mindset change; being continually customer-informed both strategically and tactically – and rapid customer research can be incredibly valuable, as our clients have recently discovered. 

In one case, a global sportswear brand wanted to incorporate testing in the sprint cycle - to understand in detail whether messaging, campaigns, tweaks and optimisations are going to hit the mark before they go live.

In response, we worked together to inject rapid customer research into the sprint cycle – to remove uncertainty from the entire process. Simply, we take a brief on quite a specific development, write scripts for unmoderated online tests, harvest, analyse and organise the findings and report back.

That whole process takes around three days.


Certainty in an Uncertain World

Clearly, this approach still can’t offer any guarantees, but it is a means by which to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances based on meaningful evidence; evidence that can help to ensure that an indispensable focus on customer needs is not lost in the battle for a share of Christmas spending.

After all, who wants to run campaigns ahead of such a challenging peak trading period without doing something to ensure as far as possible that customers are going to respond positively, and that potential issues have been unearthed and dealt with?

Rapid testing, then, is about optimising performance and managing risk. The alternative, to press on without any customer evidence, is a much less certain approach and, if there is one thing we all need at the moment, it is a little certainty.


[1] https://www.drapersonline.com/news/uk-households-to-spend-3bn-less-this-christmas