Ecommerce Site Owners’ Guide to Holiday Sales

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If this is the first time you’ve thought seriously about holiday sales, you’re already late to the game. Bricks-and-mortar stores, the traditional leaders of retail sales, put months of planning into their campaigns, all to capture just a few more customers and start the holiday sales season just a few days earlier.

This effort takes place online as well: Amazon.com, Buy.com and all the other major dot coms have extensive holiday promotions, run large marketing campagins, and have made serious inroads to the gift buying market.

The good news is that, even if you’re off to a late start, there’s still plenty you can do to cash in on the biggest sales season of the year!

Recently, several sites have reported that computer savvy consumers may conduct as much as 50% or more of their holiday shopping online. While this statistic is, perhaps, a bit higher than that for the entire U.S. consumer market, these numbers more than illustrate the simple point that people are going online to shop for gifts. And why not? With Internet access reaching 3 out of 4 homes in the U.S., and hundreds of millions of consumers world-wide, buying gifts online really is a logical decision. After all, shops mean driving, parking, long queues, and all sorts of hassles that can easily be avoided online.

With free shipping offers, money-back guarantees, and, often, lower prices than physical stores, there’s rarely a downside to shopping online, especially when it comes to products that don’t have variable sizes, and no features that you want to check out physically, first-hand, before you buy. For DVDs, music, electronics, name brand toys and any other straight-forward product or service, the Internet is the simplest solution to the hectic task of buying gifts.

So, how can you sell more online? There are a number of important tips and tricks that can win you a bigger piece of the holiday shopping action. The first factors to consider in any successful holiday promotion are theme, presentation and mood. Ultimately, all your sales, marketing, discount and other offers are simply part of an overall effort to get visitors into the gift-buying mood. This is especially important early in the holiday season; while many consumers start to think about gifts in late October, they may not consider making these purchases for months. By putting subtle cues in place, you can actually speed up the sales cycle by showing contemplators that now is the time for them to start buying. The better your site communicates this idea, the better are the odds that browsers will decide to buy at your store now.

Step 1. Add the "Holiday Spirit" to your Site

Adding holiday theme changes is a touchy subject that must be approached with careful planning. Incorporate too many holiday elements, and you risk appearing blatant and tacky; add too few and your customers may miss the message entirely. Finding a balance usually means adding simple, conservative images, color changes, a themed logo and perhaps new icon sets — but nothing that gets too flashy or over the top. As with all site revisions, be certain to run some user tests before you make a full launch, just to be certain you aren’t negatively impacting your user flow, or generating any usability issues. You don’t want to miss out on 70% of your sales because the new version of Internet Explorer has a conflict with your cute little snowflake DHTML effect.

At this stage, you also want to start to incorporate the right holiday message, to let your visitors know that you are the best source of the gifts they need to buy. While your returning customers are often your most loyal supporters, they may not consider your store as a place at which they want to purchase products for others, nor may new visitors who come looking for something for themselves. This is where your gift-shopping message comes into play: by adding some of the elements we’ll discuss later in this article, you can successfully shift the consumer mindset from, "I’m here to buy for me," to, "I’m here for me, but I can also buy something for someone else…" Your industry and niche is almost irrelevant at this point — even technical, super-geeky products are something that someone else may want as a gift.

Consider the case of just one online store: in late October, Bath and Body Works launched its new holiday layout. As a retailer, choosing when to step into the holiday theme can be quite a challenge, especially if you make the jump before retail stores kick off their own campaigns. However, in the gift and personal beauty products arena, competition is always fierce. Making the most of the holiday season is vital to the bottom line.

The site revamp that Bath and Body created captures the holiday marketing theme with a direct, warm, tasteful site. Rather than tossing in several vibrant colors, the site focuses on red, silver, and a hint of green, creating a visually soothing look. Holiday promotions take the form of ornaments and boxes which both illustrate product offerings and communicate that the store is open for holiday shopping. Simple yet effective, the entire approach can be summed up using the site’s own marketing slogan: Get Ready for the Perfect Christmas. That’s exactly what they’re attempting to get customers thinking about.

Step 2. A Tool to Answer the Hardest Question: What Should I get Him…?

As we start buying gifts and checking people off our lists, there’s always someone who’s just impossible to shop for. Maybe it’s a cousin who likes video games, or a friend who just has to have the latest golf gadget, but if you aren’t a video game player and don’t enjoy golf, chances are that you won’t know what’s good and what isn’t. The same is true for most holiday shoppers: they know they need something for a particular person — they may even know what category, or what type of item they want to get — but they have no idea about the gift’s specifics. By putting together a simple holiday gift guide, and a gift search/browse tool, you can help direct people to the product that fits the bill. The more robust your system, the more likely the customer is to find a good match, and trust your site’s recommendation.

Consider adding a section to your site that allows customers to enter personal details such as age, gender, experience or skill — any characteristics that pertain to your specific niche. Not only can this help potential customers find exactly what they need for a particular individual, but it can often inspire them to find something else for another person on that all-important gift list. Because this tool is all about helping consumers, make sure it’s simple to use, and visible on your homepage, search engine landing pages, and any other major points of entry. After all, you want as many people to use the system as you can.

Discovery.com offers an enormous variety of products, from educational toys and gadgets, to DVD and VHS versions of their television shows. Of course, too much variety can cause problems when it comes to getting customers actually to buy something. One of the ways Discovery.com gets around this is with a robust gift finder that really helps shoppers get a little more direction.

The first time visitors access this feature, they’re shown six options: Best Sellers, Customer Favorites, Discovery Exclusives, Just Aired, New Products, Stocking Stuffers and Under $25, but it doesn’t stop there. Clicking on any of these main categories shows a list of products, along with an additional list of other gift recommendations; gifts for him, gifts for her, gifts for children, and gifts by product type exist within all of those sub-levels. The system is inherently simple, but it hits on the holiday theme, works to direct visitors by interest and price point, and easily sorts through what would otherwise seem to be a daunting range of product options.

Step 3. Facing the Challenge: "When Does it Get Here?"

When free shipping first appeared on the Web, people treated it as a rare event and a major discount. At that point, consumers had become so accustomed to paying shipping costs that these charges were considered standard. Of course, after a few big stores introduced the idea, it became much more widely accepted; now, some users won’t make a purchase if shipping charges are involved. This, of course, is a silly notion: everyone knows shipping isn’t free, it’s simply a matter of whether the vendor charges you the full cost up-front, includes it as part of a bundled price, or they absorb part of the cost via reduced margins, and charge you the rest. In any case, customers do pay for shipping; they just aren’t seeing that particular line item on the bill.

Still, for most consumers, the idea of getting an item without that extra little fee at the end really stands out: it’s a value proposition that people simply love. We see this same appeal applied tax and other related handling fee discounts, although people tend to understand those costs a bit better.

Free shipping has now become so popular that there are hardly any retail stores that don’t offer it. If you’re not offering free shipping yet, consider this as a great time to test the trend. If you do offer it to your users, promote it! Don’t just put up a little link: scream that you don’t charge for shipping! One great way to do this is to add a banner or graphic to your homepage, announcing the offer as if it’s new and exciting. Make it a limited-time event, and make sure you tell consumers that they get free shipping on their gifts. Put them in their holiday buying mood: "Free shipping on all gift purchases through Christmas week only!"

It’s important to realize that shipping is your major hurdle — in fact, it’s the major hurdle faced by all Web retailers. No matter how cheap your products are, or how good your service is, customers don’t receive their purchases on the same day, and they will need to pay to have them shipped (unless of course you have a local store). At holiday time, this delay poses an even bigger risk: late arrivals. Almost everyone buys a few gifts at the last minute, but in the online world, the last minute might mean two weeks or more after the holiday, once you factor in packaging, shipping and delivery times.

Oddly enough, promoting your own "handicap" can actually solve the problem. Rather than charging customers full rates for faster shipping options, discount them. During the checkout process modify your site to show the original, full amount with a strike-through, and the special amount in bold. Despite the fact that two-day air may cost twenty bucks, it’s still a "discount" and everyone loves a discount.

It’s also a good idea to take on shipping directly by displaying a list of "order-by" dates throughout your Website (including the homepage). Use a simple chart to show customers the date by which they must place their orders to have the delivery made by Christmas. Factor in packaging time, delivery across the country (don’t assume customers live five miles away), and any foreseeable delays. If a customer orders a gift and it doesn’t arrive by December 24, there’s a 99.9% chance they will return the purchase, so save yourself the headache: give them a firm cut-off date.

Long before Christmas, and even the U.S. Thanksgiving holidays, Hershey’s Gifts had ship-by reminders in place not for the winter, but for Hallowe’en. On nearly every product page, on the homepage, and on search pages, Hershey’s provides a clear, prominent banner that displays the purchase deadline for guaranteed delivery. As the holiday season progresses, so does the banner. While the initial message is by no means detailed, the overwhelming visibility is what makes it so effective. A linked page shows interested users all the information they could hope to see: shipping estimates are color-coded by US geographic location and shipping method. The impact is clear. Every visitor knows when they have to order by, and that makes visitors all the more eager to buy.

Step 4 Discounts, Discounts, Discounts!

Don’t be afraid to put up discounts: save 10%, perhaps, or buy any product over $50 and get a free gift, or get two-for-one. These types of deals should be offered on all your top gift items. Slash prices with red lines, hold 24-hour sales, liquidate the last few dozen of any item in stock — do whatever it takes to promote yourself each day. Think about these sales as a one-day or one-week events, to keep things fresh, and to drive shoppers back for more.

As you begin to notice popular trends, swap out any existing "hot product" or "top seller" features with Top Gifts, Gifts under $10, and Recommended Gifts boxes, if that’s what works. Discount these items even further using various promotional language to sell off excess inventory. As you get lower on lower on certain types of products, play this up: encourage customers to see the importance of buying now.

Discounts should also make their way into your marketing materials. Take advantage of deal sites on which you can post (or pay to post) special coupons for your site as a means of attracting visitors who are looking for a great deal. Modify your PPC keywords to include information about your holiday sale promotions, and take those users to a specific landing page on which a discount is already clearly marked. Be sure the discount flag follows them throughout the entire site, and use a standard icon, color, and line-through graphic on the original price so that consumers know they’re saving.

While some consumers shop on the basis of the lowest price, for many, the considered factors go beyond mere dollars. They might want to find a site that seems reliable, safe and trustworthy. If you can’t have the lowest price out there, a special deal can go a long way to make up for your higher purchase price. A deal doesn’t simply mean getting the lowest price in the world: it means buying something at a price that makes you feel you did better than expected.

The problem with holiday sales is that, when the holidays end, so do the sales — at least, that’s the theory. To counter this, popular travel site Travelocity has come up with an appealing discount that actually serves to boost business after the holidays. Visitors to the site are shown a holiday themed banner using the well-known gnome mascot (wrapped in Christmas lights) with a big sign that invites customers to save $100. Right there and then, the site grabs your attention. After all, with so many discount travel sites around, and prices that are nearly identical, who wouldn’t want $100 off? The catch? Your discount is on a future-dated ticket to be used in the first half of 2006, which means you must make another purchase.

This is truly a beautiful double-sided promotion: the amount is substantial enough to appeal to almost everyone, and the delay almost guarantees Travelocity another order in the future. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that they’ve gone the extra distance, creating a well-themed landing page for the offer that includes jokes, holiday photos, and few other touches to really drive the point home.

Step 5. Bring Back Old Customers

Repeat visitors can account for 50% or more of a site’s order volume but, if you’re waiting for them to come to you, you’d better not hold your breath. This is utterly important around the holidays because, until you get out the all-important holiday message, your old customers may not be thinking of your site as a source of gifts. To get them back, and get them in the gift-buying mood, you need only do one thing: communicate with them! If you don’t send regular email communications to old clients, you need to start today (provided that your email policy allows you to)!

Put together a new email template based on your holiday-inspired site design, and go from there. A good holiday promotion has a few lines of copy and a focused creative — and it is most certainly HTML- and text-enabled. If you can segment users on the basis of their purchase history, show them more of the same kinds of products they’ve bought in the past. If you can determine how long it’s been since they ordered, offer a discount that corresponds to their particular needs, and use specific language to thank them for shopping recently, or invite them back after a long time away. Personalization will help boost the click-through rate of your promotion, and can earn you valuable points with the client when it comes to consideration.

If you can’t personalize or segment your email list (and even if you can), show recipients some top product and gift recommendations and, most importantly, give everyone an offer they can’t refuse. 10% discounts are easy to come by, and don’t mean much. But a $10-off coupon? Well, that takes on a whole new meaning: it’s ten bucks for free! Even when the offer may end up being less of a discount, a dollar figure holds a certain weight in people’s eyes, so don’t be afraid to experiment with this and other non-traditional discount ideas.

Before you finalize and send your message, be sure you can carefully track the results not just in terms of overall ROI, but also on the bases of open rates and read rates. As it gets closer to the holidays, you’ll want to follow up with another email to non-performers in case they didn’t get the first message. Repeat this process every 2-3 weeks until the holidays arrive, to maximize your campaign’s efficacy. Then, when it’s all over and everyone has received their gifts, consider a final email to those customers who did purchase, offering them super specials on all that left-over inventory that you’re just dying to sell.

Also, to tie-in to the over all idea of the holiday theme and mood, be sure that all of your outbound emails — order confirmations, lost password messages or anything else — use the same holiday design that your site displays. Wherever customers look, they should see your unified, spectacular savings- and offer-focused messages, reminding them that you can provide those few final gifts.

Before every holiday, year round, you can find Circuit City‘s special savings email in the inbox of past customers and Web leads. This, along with a series of other one-off and event-based email messages, serves to reintroduce the brand to customers over and over again. Because of the range of products, and the focus on big-ticket items like plasma-screen televisions, Circuit City’s emails really have to go the distance in terms of offering high-value incentives to push their offer above the rest. As a result, customers are likely to receive several emails during a peak seasonal period, with offers ranging from discounted DVDs, to hundreds of dollars off big-screen TVs and audiovisual equipment.

By branding all their emails to match the Website, print and TV executions, and the holiday season, Circuit City’s email campaign is able effectively to reach out to customers in the fiercely competitive consumer product market. To see these messages yourself, you’ll need to sign up for the Shop4Tech newsletter which is, of course, free.

Step 6. Adding some Simple Touches

You can offer a lot more before you must resort to outbound marketing tools to boost conversions. Consider your Website as competing with local stores because, ultimately, you are. This means you have to meet or beat any deal they might offer. Here are a few ideas.

The return receipt is a concept that hasn’t yet been taken on all over the Web, but there’s a reason why almost every large retailer offers them. Online retailers have the ability to go a step further: at the end of your confirmation email (and in your thank-you page), add a link to let users print out receipts for individual items they’ve purchased. This will encourage customers to buy multiple items from your store and, when it comes time for them to order a few more items, they’ll already know that if the product isn’t right, they needn’t worry. You’ve reduced the risk by giving them a way to let their friend, who has no relationship with you, return the item.

If you really want to blow this idea out of the water, consider offering a special deal in which you’ll cover shipping on all returns bearing gift receipts. It doesn’t cost me a dime to return the sweater grandma bought me to a local store, but if I have to ship it back to some dot com I’d have to pay — and grandma doesn’t want me to have to pay to return the item if I don’t like it (then again, how could anyone not like a brightly colored sweater?!).

Gift Certificates are another no-brainer for the holidays, especially if you offer technical products or other items focused on youth. Parents, grandparents, and friends often just don’t know what to get teenagers and young adults, so, rather than having them pick up a gift card to BestBuy, why not offer them your own virtual certificate? Even better, offer a printed version. You may not sell a lot in your first year, but the vouchers won’t cost you a thing and, as is often the case, you’ll likely find that customers using a voucher buy items totaling more than the value of the voucher.

If you’re even considering shipping items directly to gift recipients, gift wrapping is a must. Like gift certificates, there’s minimal cost involved in offering gift wrapping; just pick up a few different types of wrapping, some tape and bows, and put the options online (after you learn how to tie a pretty knot, that is). The real factor to consider here is what to do if demand explodes; wrapping a few items isn’t hard, but wrapping 500 on your own might be. Again, you really have the option to use this idea to your advantage by promoting it as a free service. This makes it harder to cover your costs, but your store becomes a much more appealing option for potential clients who are looking for value.

And as we’ve already discussed, it’s imperative that people can see your shipping methods and estimated delivery times up-front and during checkout. Make this information work to your advantage by urging people to buy before it’s too late. Don’t forget to throw in a count-down script to remind people that there are only "x days left" before a shipping option expires. As the time ticks by, this counter will become more and more important to ensuring that you receive as few returns as possible. As a bonus, offer a guaranteed delivery ship-by date backed up by a full refund, no questions asked.

Pottery Barn Kids has already gone all-out in developing its holiday theme. A cute, well-focused Flash animation introduces the brand’s core offerings, while red icons with snowflake backgrounds comprise the site navigation. On the side-bar, in plain view, are free and lower shipping rate icons, a gift locator, and sale items. Directly below the main content even more holiday promotions can be found, including a more in-depth version of the gift finder segmented by age, gender, and free shipping recommendations. There is also a holiday shipping chart to give consumers ample warning and time to plan their purchases. The entire site wraps together neatly to embody the holiday theme without going over the top, and it was all prepared months before Christmas, bringing the holiday mood to consumers just a little bit earlier than other stores.

Of course, not all of your effort should be devoted to your site’s front end. As with any major promotional campaign, you’ll want to track every aspect of your site, every new source of business, and the impacts of all your efforts. If your current tracking involves nothing more than a simple analytics tool, it may be time to look for something more robust. Systems like Urchin, CoreMetrics, FireClick and HitBox Pro offer sophisticated ecommerce tracking applications that monitor everything from conversion rates to abandonment and segmentation drop-off.

If you don’t have the time or budget to switch to a high-end analytics package, consider adding some extra tracking of your own. On the most basic level, you’ll want to uniquely identify each method by which visitors access your Website, be it search engine marketing, email blasts, or some other tactic. Monitor the daily clicks receive by each of your special holiday tools and recommended gifts. If a particular category attracts a higher level of activity or sales, consider increasing your promotion or discounts to really push orders up. The better you understand how visitors navigate the site, the easier it will be to determine exactly which items, tools and elements are working, and which are not. Try to optimize your site two or three times during the period to ensure that you really are maximizing your results, and not wasting space with unused features or options. When everything’s done, all the orders are shipped, and you’ve got a minute to breathe, you will want to start going over all the data to figure out which elements really preformed, and which fell short. The more you learn from this holiday season, the better you can adjust and prepare for future promotions, or even the 2006 season — it’s never too early to start planning.

Make it Count: Fulfill it All, or Close the Doors Early

There are a lot of quick, easy ideas you can throw at an existing store to help boost your holiday sales volumes, but it’s perhaps more important that you’re able to deliver on the orders you receive than to simply focus on bringing more through the front door. People expect to receive their orders before Christmas, so you must ensure that you can handle the volumes you recieve. Find yourself some potential temps — even a few kids from your area — to take on simple tasks like gift wrapping and shipping. Every year, there have been a few big name ecommerce stores that simply fell apart trying to keep up with holiday gift buying demand. The result of failing to deliver on a wide scale? Well, let’s just say that Toys-R-Us doesn’t sell online anymore. If the volumes are too high to handle, close the doors: turning business away beats an inbox of refund requests and chargebacks any day.

Holiday sales are just waiting to be captured — you needn’t implement all this advice to see an improvement in your sales figures. Simply pushing consumers from shopping for themselves to shopping for others may be all you really need to do. From there, the opportunities are endless: add whatever you can for this season and consider it a test. Many of these ideas can be used throughout the year, too, so, start small or big, but don’t let the opportunity pass without at least taking an initial shot.

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