The tendency of retailers to push Holiday related promotional activity into early Fall has long been an object of interest and the butt of humor.  But this year, we’ve noted in our tracking of marketing emails that even more of this early Holiday emphasis appears to be happening than usual.

Here’s what we’re seeing on our platform.  Filtering for relevant subject line keywords, senders in eleven of the largest retail categories we track sent 36% more qualifying campaigns in October 2020 than in October 2019, and 50% more actual deployed email volume.  Their 2020 activity achieved slightly stronger inbox performance, and slightly lower read rates than in 2019.

Drilling down to eight of the largest online and multi-channel retail brands*, these year-over-year trends are even more pronounced.  During October 2020, these brands sent more than twice the number of holiday-themed emails than they did in 2020.  The YOY trend for related emails deployed was almost that large.  And for these brands, both inbox and read rate performance improved in 2020.

(*) Amazon, eBay, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Target, Walmart, Kohl’s, Macy’s and Best Buy

One important bit of perspective to keep in mind:  for both of the above read-outs, Holiday-themed campaigns are only a miniscule percentage of the total email messaging those businesses deployed during October.  So, although there was lots more ‘early’ Holiday email, this year, it was still a tiny piece of overall volumes.

The more tantalizing question is why it’s happening.  In a year with words like “unprecedented” and “emergency” plastered all over it, you’d have to suspect that COVID is the driver.  And that may be true.  While almost none of the messaging actually references COVID-related issues, we found two October messages which state these themes explicitly.  Both deployed on October 8th, and carry subject lines fronting CEO messages.

  • One is from the outdoor apparel and equipment retailer, Moosejaw (owned by Walmart). It reads, in part:

“This year has been one of the most disruptive in our history.  Relative to the rest of the challenges, Holiday gift giving may seem minor, but in many ways, these small moments of joy and caring are more important this year than ever. 

“That’s why we want to do everything we can to make your Holiday gift giving as amazing as possible.  The challenge is that major supply chain disruptions are impacting our brands, making it unclear if cor when we will receive some goods.  This season is also predicted to be the biggest ever for online shopping, putting further strain on a system that already strains to handle Holiday peak. 

“So our advice is to shop early to avoid disappointment, not just at Moosejaw, but pretty much all of your Holiday shopping.” 

  • The other is from a small Michigan sporting goods chain called Gazelle Sports, under the heading of “Local Matters.” Its relevant excerpt:

“This has been a tough year on small, local businesses, ours included.  Local businesses in all of our communities have weathered having their doors closed, worked hard to launch new ecommerce or improved websites to connect with customers during the shutdowns, and reopened under strict guidelines and requirements.  All of this work has been done out of love for our customers and our communities.

“So, here we go.  The holiday shopping season is here, earlier than ever.  Part of me wants to grumble and say, ‘Wait!  It’s not even Halloween yet!’  Instead, I am making the choice to embrace a longer holiday season, start my shopping earlier, and give myself plenty of time to explore local shops and find the perfect gift for everyone on my list.  I hope you’ll join me in doing the same!”

Otherwise, the early Holiday-themed messaging is conventional promotional retail fare, with many references to “early” Black Friday, but we saw very few overt references to the pandemic.  We did find the three examples below.

Date Brand Subject Read Rate
10/19 Score Sports Preview The Virtual Parking Lot Sale NOW! 45%
10/31 Leading Lady Another socially-distanced holiday? Here’s a treat. 43%
10/31 Beauties Ltd. New Christmas Masks 38%


Holiday is the annual crucible for retailers, about ten intense weeks representing a hugely disproportionate share of annual sales and profits, and lasting well into January.  This year’s season will be the most challenging ever, given the double-whammy of the pandemic and its widespread economic dislocations, not to mention the inevitable distribution/logistics challenges affecting product availability and delivery, and indoor shopping restrictions.   Timely, flexible, targeted informational communications will be more critical than ever, above and beyond the usual robust promotional flow.  As the season progresses,  we will be watching all this activity, and periodically reporting on it.

So, stay tuned.  Black Friday is less than three weeks away.

~ John