This article was written by Amit Sharma, the founder and CEO of Narvar-, a company that helps retail brands deliver premium post-purchase experiences

This holiday season promises to be big — but short. Overall holiday retail sales will see above-average growth, between 3.8 percent and 4.2 percent, which equates to roughly $730 billion. E-commerce sales are expected to grow even faster, with an 18 percent spike year-over-year. Concurrently, the holiday shopping schedule this year consists of only four, not five, weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and totals 26 days — the shortest gift-giving season since 2002. Last year, shoppers had 32 days to get through their lists.

A shorter shopping window this year means more pressure on retailers to serve customers who are also dealing with the time crunch. Shoppers are buying both in-store and online; therefore, to make the most of this accelerated time frame, retailers need to think about convenience and flexibility at every step.

Here are five ways to create a more frictionless experience:

Simplify Gift Returns and Exchanges

The returns experience matters, and gifts are perceived to be harder to return. Think of the gift recipient in the returns process. For example, don’t email the gift-giver if the recipient makes a return or exchanges a gift. Furthermore, make it easy to exchange for different sizes, colors, and items. Show them that store credit is immediate and offer suggestions for items they’d like, perhaps sorted by price point so it’s easier for them to identify an even exchange.

Hassle-free returns and exchanges are an opportunity to provide a better customer experience and increase loyalty in the long term. After all, there’s a 40 percent possibility of gaining second-chance sales from customers making a return.

Provide Delivery and Returns Info Upfront

With online sales increasing, retailers should focus on making the process of receiving and returning orders as convenient as possible for their customers. This starts with transparency. Retailers should display their return and exchange policies — including for gifts — prominently on their website. These policies should be visible on product, checkout and order tracking pages, in the path to purchase, as well as in the usual FAQ areas. Also, consider extending the window for returns just for the holidays to bolster the gift buyer’s confidence.

Likewise, delivery windows should be accurate and clear to shoppers before they purchase. Don’t make them wait until the very end of their checkout process to know that their gift won’t arrive in time.

These ideas will be especially meaningful to millennial shoppers, who purchase digitally — 60 percent of all their orders — more often than other generations. These young customers will reward retailers with their loyalty if merchants make delivery and return information easy to access and understand.

Take Your Brand Beyond Channels

At the same time, a significant number of young consumers are buying in-store. Look at Gen Z: 76 percent of that generation believes in-store shopping is better than online.

And across generations, last-minute shopping appears to be on the rise, which means customers have less time to wait for deliveries and want quick, easy options for buying gifts after mid-December. Instances of ordering online and picking up in-store or other delivery location, also called “click and collect,” were up 47 percent last holiday season compared with 2017. In other words, brands need to think beyond channels and offer more convenient, frictionless ways for time-starved consumers to receive and return gifts.

Offer Flexibility

Retailers will be rewarded for giving consumers options for delivery other than leaving packages on the front porch. In addition to in-store or curbside pickup, some retailers are teaming up to offer more convenient options. For example, has been wise to partner with Kohl’s to enable its customers to return orders via the department store chain’s nationwide locations. In a similar partnership, online customers for Urban Outfitters, Free People, and Anthropologie can pick up their orders at one of over 8,000 Walgreens stores.

A focus on flexibility should pay dividends this holiday season. Consider that 36 percent of shoppers say it’s easier to return an item to a store because they receive immediate credit and don’t worry about their returns getting lost in the mail. What’s more, 80 percent of shoppers said they’re more likely to buy repeatedly from retailers that offer a range of convenient, flexible delivery options.

Send Proactive Updates

Shoppers are sending gifts to multiple locations; make it easy for them to keep track of where they are in the delivery process. Update customers proactively with notifications about the status of their order, particularly if there are delays.

Keeping customers informed pays off when it comes to revenue. For instance, in 2017, Honey Baked Ham boosted its revenue by $2 million during the holidays by communicating proactively with customers and reducing “Where is my order?” inquiries.

In Sum: Relieve Your Stressed-Out Customers

Simplifying gift returns, thinking beyond channels, offering flexible options, and keeping customers updated are key to removing friction from holiday shopping. And with a short holiday season, it’s a perfect opportunity to make shoppers’ lives easier and engender loyalty in the process. Build your brand this holiday season by being a source of relief for gift buyers and turning a potentially stressful experience into an effortless one.

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