Normally, by the end of summer, retail websites have their website plans set for the holiday shopping season. The day after Thanksgiving is the drop-dead target for making every part of their online shopping experience as smooth as possible. 

Ha! Normal! We’ll still be reaching for normalcy by the end of the year, but in the meantime, the same strange social and financial tectonics affecting every other part of our lives will profoundly accelerate online shopping habits.

The Black Friday-Small Business Saturday-Cyber Monday window, online and in-store, was already bleeding into surrounding days (and weeks) on the calendar. Pre-COVID, the generally-accepted wisdom was that the final six weeks of the year accounts for roughly 20% of yearly sales

This year, anything goes. According to one poll, 71% of adults in the U.S. plan to do over half their holiday shopping online. In October, Amazon Prime Day has already positioned itself as the opening bell for the holiday shopping season.

This is one of those situations where every minute online really does count, from mid-November to New Year’s Day. Here’s a short checklist of what your site and app must have, what your e-commerce team should do, and features you kinda need.


Fall for online retail includes a lot of QA testing, working bugs out of the ordering process, testing of special offers, and final prep for promotional campaigns. 

However … if you don’t have the following features wrapped up, it’s time to call in an emergency team:

  • Gift messaging and/or gift wrap options.
  • The ability to send a receipt without any pricing on it.
  • Clear, easy-to-find policies about returns/exchanges, including pandemic-specific revisions.
  • Wish-lists and gift hints.
  • The ability to easily contact customers if there are shipping delays.

The biggest fear with a retail site? That it will crash (and burn) due to an influx in traffic. Given the amount of catch-up retailers have to do in the aftermath, they can’t really afford for the site to go down for any amount of time during any part of the day.

A common mistake even experienced online retailers make is not giving themselves enough time to launch and test before the holidays. It’s understandable … products, people, and pressure create a perfect storm. But ideally, any changes should be made, deployed, and tested before November.

Stress testing (or load testing) your site is always a good idea, and there’s a handful of 3rd party tools that can help, but the most important thing is to give your team enough time, and be willing to keep prioritizing features as you go.

Related to that is implementing a scalable architecture if possible, whether that’s going serverless wherever possible, or implement a load balancer to spin up/down new servers as needed.


Really good product images are a no-brainer, but somehow stores are still screwing this up. To cut down on returns, size information, product details, a variety of images showing context, relative sizing, and any multiple uses will help people feel confident in making their purchases. 

Make sure it’s easy to order any of your products online – if you’ve been waiting to revise your product strategy or build out your online shopping capabilities, now is the time. No one wants to find the perfect purchase, only to be told three steps down the road that it’s unavailable for shipping.

Curbside delivery: if you have a brick-and-mortar store, this can really help your customers feel safe and cared for. Similarly, if you are offering any other special services, bring them front and center – they are certainly appreciated!

Setting expectations around shipping, returns, and exchanges — especially any updates and changes made due to the pandemic — will help reassure customers that you are up-to-date and thinking of how best to accommodate their needs. UPS has already announced spikes in fees, and the U.S. Postal Service has its own fish to fry, so the more transparency, the better.

Another great way to boost transparency? Communicate to your customers early in the season about order fulfillment (not just shipping). This goes double for customized products, which can take weeks to create in the best of circumstances. Don’t sugarcoat it. Most consumers are aware that supply chains are stressed and brands are dealing with a lot of internal change, they just want honesty.

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