Even though the start of the holiday shopping season is still four months away, now is as good a time as any to start preparing, experts say.
Nikole Haiar, director of marketing campaigns and programs for the Web solutions firm Hostway Services, Inc., said the busy holiday season can be stressful on online merchants who are swamped trying to get their products to customers as quickly as possible. That's why she believes now, when things are a bit slower, is a good time for e-commerce businesses to take stock of their operations to ensure they are best prepared when business does pick up.
"Planning infrastructure needs, considering platform upgrades, testing your system for weaknesses — these activities are easier to conduct during a slower time than at the height of cyber-shopping season," Haiar said.
To help online businesses start preparing, Haiar offers five tips:
- Assess your website: Since you still have a few months to make changes, now is the perfect time to take a critical look at your site to see how it stacks up against your competitors' offerings. Does it look professional and have an intuitive layout? Is it optimized for mobile shopping? Are there enticing photos of each product? Haiar said these are some of the important questions e-commerce owners should ask themselves now, rather than waiting until the holiday season is in full swing.
- Evaluate your shopping cart: Since online shoppers often expect a more streamlined checkout process, a basic shopping cart may not be enough to earn their sales. The best shopping carts display items and order status, while offering reviews, product ratings, images and discount offers. Haiar said if online stores aren't making it as easy as possible for customers to make purchases, now is the time companies should consider upgrading their shopping carts.
- Gauge payment options: E-commerce businesses that only use PayPal or accept only one type of credit card might want to contemplate opening a secure merchant account that allows them to automatically accept a wider variety of payment options, including all major credit cards, Haiar said.
- Update security measures: With data breaches on the rise, online retailers need to take all of the necessary precautions to ensure their customer's information is safe and secure. Haiar said a secure sockets layer (SSL) certificate is a must for all e-commerce businesses. This increases customer confidence by letting them know that their private information is encrypted before transmission. Additionally, consider adding payment card industry (PCI)-compliance capabilities to ensure you are following regulations on the transmission of payment-card data and avoiding negative attention from regulators, Haiar said.
- Prepare for traffic spikes: Starting with Cyber Monday, which falls on Dec. 1 this year, e-commerce stores need to be ready for an influx of traffic. In order to take make the most out of the rush of customers, online businesses must be able to scale up resources quickly to meet emerging demand, Haiar said. They should also be able to scale back down when the shopping rush ends.
Even though the holiday shopping season is the busiest time of the year, e-commerce merchants often look forward to the rush because it's an opportunity to build relationships with new suppliers and customers, while also renewing ties with existing contacts, Haiar said.
"But before peak cyber-shopping time gets here, it makes sense to prepare for the holiday shopper stampede," Haiar said. "There's no time like the present."