By Catherine Walsh, senior vice president and general manager for Retail and Consumer Goods

We’re only two days away from sinking into a tryptophan-induced Thursday evening on the couch with the Steelers and Colts. But many retailers have their focus glued on the day after Thanksgiving: Black Friday, the official kick off to the holiday buying season.

Caterine Walsh

Catherine Walsh, senior vice president and general manager for Retail and Consumer Goods

According to the National Retail Federation, sales in November and December are expected to increase by 3.6 percent, reaching $655.8 billion this year. Retailers—in store and online alike—are taking notice. Amazon’s already made a wave by “redefining” Black Friday, presenting deals as frequently as every five minutes through Dec. 22.

Sure, this may not be a surprise to many, but you  may be alarmed by how much customer buying habits have changed, tipping a hat to the need for businesses to have reliable and secure customer service practices in place. Retailers be warned: “Customer experience” extends well beyond the time spent purchasing a gift, and into navigating post-holiday returns.

A recent Xerox survey found that 71 percent of respondents plan to conduct the majority of their holiday shopping this year online. A far cry from a decade ago when nearly 93 percent of respondents agreed that in-store shopping was preferred.

But we’re not yet prepared to altogether abandon the ways of brick and mortar shopping. That’s why the ability to deliver a cohesive customer experience, regardless of touchpoint or channel, is critical in terms of business processes and systems. It’s more than person-to-person, it’s the combination of all in-store experiences: the servers, peripherals, wireless, tablets, electronic shelf labels, beacons, digital signage and even digital mirrors. One glitch sends a consumer walking, along with the sale.

For those who live dangerously—the 35 percent who admit to not starting shopping until the week before Christmas (let alone Christmas Eve…)—how does customer service need to shift to meet their (potentially panicked) demands? Consumers expect retailers, online or freestanding, to invest in solutions that simplify process, from the moment they start browsing, all the way through the moment they potentially return for a… return.

When 26 percent of respondents say they would rather visit the DMV than deal with customer service at a retailer during the holidays, it’s time to take action. And action can often mean automation. Retailers are discovering that if they can automate the collection of information throughout the store, they get a full picture of what’s working and what’s not.

So with that, I bid you all a Happy Thanksgiving, and a happier, pain-free holiday shopping season. Drop us a line in the comments section below and express your concerns or expectations heading into this holiday season.