It’s the holiday season. Why are the parking lots not full?

December 18, 2018By Behind the Shelf Blog

By Jen Johnston, CHHC

‘Twas the week before Christmas, and all through my city, the parking wasn’t bad, and the stores not that busy.

This is the first year that I really noticed the in-store Christmas rush was significantly less than in the years past. From the mall to the strip mall gift shop to the grocery store, and from the chain bookseller to the department store to the clothing retailer, foot traffic was unusually light. I was never more than two people away from checking out – during mid-day on a Saturday in December.

Since I was shopping with a 5-year-old in tow, this was utterly delightful. We were in and out as fast as could be. But I couldn’t help but think how utterly un-delightful this was for the stores themselves.
In November, CNBC reported on an Abobe Analytics forecast that predicted “U.S. online spending during the holiday shopping season is likely to grow 14.8% this year to $124.1 billion, far outpacing the 2.7% growth predicted for brick-and-mortar locations.”
hand holding shopping bags
I was right on pace with this increase in my own online spending. Ninety percent of my holiday shopping was done online this year, after the kids were in bed, and the only reason I still chose to shop brick and mortar for some purchases was to redeem a few coupons. Yes, the lure of the deal still gets to me sometimes.

The deals may have driven me to the stores, but the experience definitely did not make me want to stay there. The Christmas music was blaring so loud everywhere, I couldn’t even have a conversation with my child – so much for building memories. There were no helpful store associates in sight to direct me where I needed to go either. And while there may have been holiday decorations, I just didn’t get that warm, cozy holiday feeling anywhere.

Physical stores could have an edge over online stores here if they put some more effort into building the customer experience, especially around the holidays, and in particular for families. I don’t think I am unusual in that with any free time I have around the holidays, I want to build experiences with my family, not bother with mundane tasks like shopping. But what if I could have those experiences while shopping? What if the act wasn’t so mundane?

I’m imagining stores that add a few café tables and provide hot cider or hot chocolate to guests; or shops that invite Santa or some elves to walk around the store and hand out candy canes and coupons to families.

Retailers could have pop-up photo spots where families could hold up holiday props and snap Instagram-worthy photos. They could put up some unique holiday decorations as a family draw like the downtown storefront windows of yesteryear. And maybe stores could even pipe in some Christmassy smells, or better yet, have live Christmas trees – no fake scents required!

I have fond memories of Christmas shopping downtown with my mom as a child, but if holiday shopping continues to leave me without that warm, cozy feeling (I believe the Danes and some trendy U.S. hipsters call it hygge), I might just decide to do it all online next year and save my free time for creating meaningful experiences with my kids. And I doubt I am the only one.