With the holidays approaching, brands and retailers are starting to put out their annual gift guides. The commonly used marketing tool offers a good entry point for new customers and often works to push existing customers over the line to make a purchase. But this year, the holidays are coming at a very strange time, when much of retail has been heavily disrupted and brands are more reliant on the big spike of holiday sales than ever before. Gift guides are pulling more weight than ever. Accordingly, brands are shifting their approach and sending out guides earlier than usual.

“If people come into the store, they don’t want to spend time dawdling and looking around; they want to be in and out,” said Guido Campello, co-CEO of intimates brand Journelle. “The gift guides typically allow for no-friction conversion, and the idea is only going to be more important for people this year. A lot of people are also concerned about costs right now, and gift guides can help them find out about sales early in the season.”

This year, Journelle is messaging holiday gifting a month earlier than usual, in October, and it will release a second guide in December. The first is a static collection of products, while the second will be released over 12 days, with a new product dropping online each day. After that, Campello said he typically sees a continued holiday bump in sales through January. Valentine’s Day, the second biggest time of the year for Journelle sales, comes with its own gift guide. Considering the additional two months of inventory planning that the gift guide requires, Campello said he’s thinking about holiday gifting and guides for seven or eight months of the year. 

Though Journelle’s holiday gift guide typically spotlights products available via both its e-commerce site and wholesale channels, this year Campello said the focus is more on online sales. Accordingly, the guide is all digital with shoppable links to product. Pieces from the guide are also being posted on Instagram with shoppable links.

Campello said he couldn’t put an exact number on the costs of creating a gift guide, since it’s created in-house by him and Journelle’s marketing and merchandising teams. But he did say that distribution costs of the gift guide can be considerable. The guide gets sent out to hundreds of thousands of existing customers, all digitally, and with email service providers charging a few cents per email, that can easily add up to tens of thousands of dollars. 

When done right, gift guides can be well worth it. The products on Amazon’s holiday gift guide in 2017 brought in more than $170 million, a 40% increase from the year before. Pinterest sees huge spikes in searches for “Christmas gift ideas” as early as April, according to the Wall Street Journal.

On top of the costs, it can take one or two months to create the imagery and copy needed for the guide and longer to make sure there’s enough inventory to support the guide, according to the brand sources for this story.

Social Goods, a small online retailer based in New York that specializes in clothing and gifts, with proceeds going to charitable and activist causes, creates digital gift guides around events like International Women’s Day, in addition to holidays. Right now, the company is focused on both a holiday gift guide launching next week and an election-themed gift guide that was marketed to existing customers through email and new customers through ads on Instagram this week. 

For a smaller retailer that is fairly new — Social Goods launched ahead of last holiday season, in September 2019 — co-founder Lisa Sokolov said gift guides are an excellent way to bring in new customers. “For us, we see the gift guide as an entry point into what we do,” she said.

Kate Sokolov, co-founder of Social Goods, said that one of the challenges of doing gift guides this year has been inventory. Pandemic-induced disruptions to the supply chain for many brands has meant that inventory that was available two months ago might not be anymore, so guides quickly become outdated. So the co-founders have a adopted a rotating holiday gift guide that adds new product every week. The guide has its own page on the company’s website that links to corresponding product pages. Social Goods emailed it out to its customers on Wednesday and is currently promoting the guide on its social channels.

To ensure they’re selling the most relevant products in this unprecedented year, some brands are creating product specifically for the gift guide. Womenswear brand Summersalt’s gift guide is made up mostly of holiday-themed product launching at the beginning of November.

“As we thought about the holiday season, specifically a holiday season with so much uncertainty, we focused on a theme of celebrating the ones you love,” said Summersalt co-founder Reshma Chamberlin. “We used this theme to dictate the product we created with intention and to guide how we share with our consumer.”

Lori Coulter, co-founder of Summersalt, said the brand’s new cashmere collection was created specifically for the holiday gift guide.

Due to changes in the effectiveness of certain marketing channels since the pandemic began, brands are taking new approaches to marketing their gift guides. Campello said that in addition to the new marketing channels the brand has been exploring — podcast ads have been surprisingly effective recently, he said — the brand will be investing more in video ads to market the second gift guide coming in December. The focus will be on YouTube, but Campello plans to cross-post the content on platforms including Instagram and Facebook.

“There are a lot of ways you can measure the success of a guide,” Campello said. “Click-through rates, overall revenue of the products featured. Exploring different channels is really important, especially since we’ve seen paid social ad prices up 30-40% this year.”