Holiday customer experiences needn’t be a frantic blur of crowds and tinsel. From masterful to madcap, here are 5 brands doing innovative things with their seasonal CX.

1. Target: helping customers avoid the store altogether

For some customers, spending as little time and effort in store during the holiday rush is the ultimate goal. And for those customers, there’s a dream experience waiting at Target. Or rather, not at Target.

The store offers ultra-convenient services on a year-round basis, using them as a point of differentiation from their competitors. These include same-day delivery, same-day in-store collection, and most impressively, “Drive Up,”, a service where you don’t even need to turn off your engine when making a drive-by ‘Target Run.’. Having made an order on the Target app, you can pull up outside and have your goods handed through the window by a member of staff.

For holiday 2018, Target put these customer convenience strategies into overdrive, ramping up customer convenience and speed with a particular focus on last-minute shopping. By upping staff numbers and strengthening their logistics network, Target were able to offer these seat-of-the-pants holiday shopping experiences up until 10pm on December 24th.

All of this stems from a simple insight into what drives Target’s customers – rather than shopping in a festive atmosphere, they want a reliable way to make last-minute purchases and have the goods in their hands as fast as possible.

2. REI: sacrificing Black Friday sales for brand purpose

Outdoor goods retailer REI made waves by boycotting Black Friday, closing its stores and suspending online order processing on November 27 2015. Customers were told that the stores wouldn’t be participating in Black Friday, but that staff would be paid for the day. Both staff and fans were encouraged to use the time to do something outdoors.

REI has kept up the practice over subsequent years, defending the boycott with the rationale that values are more important than sales and promotions are not the way to win hearts. The hashtag #OptOutside helped spread the word.

While shutting up shop on one of the biggest days in the retail calendar seems counter-intuitive, it offers a unique experience to customers by giving them a day off from consumerism. On a less idealistic and more ROI-focused level, it has delivered enough publicity and brand value to be worth keeping up year on year.

REI customers evidently appreciate the stance, and REI’s CEO Jerry Stritzke feels that it has actively helped REI survive during a challenging time for the retail sector. The takeaway: Customers don’t just want deals and offers – in order to win their loyalty, brands must stand for something and align with a customer’s values, particularly at times when the stakes are high. Because of the sales they’re foregoing, the holiday season is a time when REI’s gesture means the most.

3. L’Occitane – offering an indulgent in-store experience

Cosmetics brand L’Occitane has invested heavily in retail locations, launching flagship stores on London’s Regent Street and New York’s 5th Avenue, both likely to be magnets for holiday shoppers.

The stores are palatial spaces geared towards providing a rich sensory experience and promising to be a refuge of relaxation for holiday shoppers. Rather than maximizing footfall and streamlining the purchase process, the stores aim to win visitors over to the brand by providing something indulgent and unforgettable.

The offerings include stationary bikes and VR headsets where you can cycle through a virtual Provence or take a hot air balloon trip over lavender fields. There are also free hand massages and a Selfie Studio where you can print out a branded photo-memento of your visit. Gift shopping also receives a touch of class – visitors can have their purchases engraved with the recipient’s name, and take their items to the “Gifting Garden” to be professionally gift-wrapped free of charge.

The strategy behind the brand’s approach again rests on an understanding of its customer base. The typical L’Occitane customer is affluent, female and aged 40 or over and 86% of sales happen in a physical store. The emphasis on retail spaces place the products within a broader brand experience – in shopping at L’Occitane the customer is taking home a piece of their escape from the hustle and bustle of the holidays.

4. PNC: a gingerbread bank where you can open an account

PNC took the experiential marketing campaign to a new level by building a branch of their bank literally out of gingerbread for Philadelphia shoppers to visit. The baked goods structure contained a working ATM and vault (full of cookies), and customers could open a bank account at the branch.

Only 11 people did so, but the point of the exercise was in fact to link in with the brand’s Christmas Price Index, a longer-term promotional project which tracks the year-on-year price differentials of items from the 12 days of Christmas carol, such as 5 gold rings and a partridge in a pear tree.

PNC’s journey from banking to marketing to bank-as-marketing is an example of how promotional worlds and the creative ideas used in advertising can come full circle and join up with the consumer products they were created to support.

With this seasonal experience, PNC and its customers are collaborating on a creative project that’s almost a shared joke, one which creates a positive connection and warm emotions towards what might otherwise be seen as a dry, distant corporation.

5. Harvey Nichols: a brutally honest holiday campaign

Upmarket UK department store Harvey Nichols ushered in the 2013 holiday season with a range of products designed for people who had shamelessly spent all their gifting budget on themselves. “Sorry I Spent it On Myself” invited customers to shop for items like a £1.61 bag of ‘authentic Lincolnshire gravel’ or a gift set of three elastic bands.

The range of joke gifts were sold in Harvey Nichols stores in a deadpan manner, alongside their usual fare of designer handbags, accessories and clothing. The campaign was supported by a TV ad showing the gifts being opened on Christmas morning by confused recipients dazzled by the brand name but underwhelmed by the items.

This campaign shows how carefully Harvey Nichols listens to its customers, and reveals a shrewd perception of how customers perceive the brand and their own shopping habits. Harvey Nichols customers spend more on themselves than might be typical. They’re swayed by brand names regardless of product features. And they have a sense of humor about it too.

The campaign pokes fun at the extravagance of the typical Harvey Nicks shopper in a way that sits perfectly on the cusp between sharp and affectionate. The proof? All the items in the range sold out within hours.

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