Christmas Markets. They’ve become a festive feature of UK town centres with shoppers visiting wood lodges to buy gifts as well as guzzle gluhwein and bratwurst (make mine a vegan one).

It seems that Christmas markets, for some towns, have become another casualty of COVID-19, with the massive Manchester market cancelled, the Derby market moved online and the Nottingham market closed after its attendance exceeded all expectations and made social distancing impossible. I completely agree that shopper safety needs to take priority over Christmas commerce and the retail environment and safety measures are continually updating. However, I am saddened that organisers couldn’t think of a way to ensure that seasonal shopping could carry on in a safe way, especially as there is a clear desire from shoppers for the in-person shopping experience.

Maybe retail store occupancy management is not a particularly seasonal topic (although, if I remember my primary school nativity play correctly, there was no room at the inn) but it is relevant in this case and has repercussions beyond application at an Alpine shopping experience. There are possibilities and strategies for the markets (and post-Christmas commerce) to operate a booking system to restrict numbers in the market, much like booking tickets for a popular tourist attraction such as the London Eye. Through booking a time slot, customers would be assured that they would be allowed entry and be able to plan their day around their allotted time, perhaps making a reservation at a restaurant or pub before and/or after their shopping session, supporting local businesses close to the market. Customers would also have the reassurance of a safer shopping session and traders would know times when the market was due to be attended by more people based on the booking data.

This appointment to shop system extends beyond Christmas markets with high street retail and grocers able to offer a similar service to their customers. News reports of local councils being able to allow 24 hour trading on the run up to Christmas raised a few eyebrows, and I’m not convinced that it is the safest strategy when combined with people being turfed out of pubs at 11. However, a 24 hour trading day provides fantastic conditions under which to operate a shopper booking system such as the systems adopted by a few grocers. Done right, shoppers could book a time that suits them online or via an app and, as their slot approaches, they will be served reminders via email, text or notifications. If fully integrated with a store app, the shopper could be asked general questions about what or who they are shopping for, so that sales associates could prepare products in advance. Through booking data, retailers would know just how popular a 3 am slot really would be, and so be able to staff accordingly and determine when would be the best time to cleanse and restock the shop floor.

Food shopping, long cited by shoppers as the most stressful part of Christmas shopping , could be made so much easier by limiting occupancy numbers in a supermarket at any one time. Less crowded by other shoppers, customers may feel safer and less hurried, so they’d take their time over the shop — possibly picking up a few extra bits in addition to the Christmas essentials. (Of course, digital signage can help with seasonal and timely promotions throughout the store, encouraging add-on and impulse purchase even further.)

Again, even without operating a booking system, using an occupancy system such as IntelliCount with signage could help shoppers determine when would be the best time to enter the store for an efficient experience, avoiding queues and possibly even avoid hearing Wham for the ninth time that morning.

The chaos at Christmas markets is what got me thinking but, like puppies, Scala solutions aren’t just for Christmas. No one could have foreseen what 2020 had in store for retail (pun intended), but I’m feeling confident about the years ahead of us. Shoppers queuing to get back into stores (or Christmas markets) shows that the desire for the in-person experience is strong. Through strategic use of data and implementation of technology, I am confident that high street retail will not only just survive but thrive. At Scala we are proud and excited to be a part of that successful retail story. Here’s to a Merry Christmas, happy holidays and a Happy New Year to all of us.

Darren Cremins is a Senior Sales Director at Scala for the UK and Ireland regions. As 20+ year digital signage industry expert, Darren primarily helps retailers engage with their customers. Throughout his nearly 10 years with Scala, Darren has developed a strong focus on combining not only the Scala solutions, but the complete STRATACACHE family of solutions into the UK & Ireland market in this ever-changing world of marketing technology and digital signage.