Most consumers likely aren't even ready for Halloween yet, but in the retail world, early fall means holiday prep time. The days following Thanksgiving — referred to as Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday — are widely accepted as the biggest holiday shopping weekend of the year, and though they may seem far away now, they'll be here sooner than you think.
The key to ensuring a successful holiday sales season is early planning and consistent marketing, especially as a small business competing against retail giants like Walmart and Target. Experts offered their advice to help you make 2015 your best holiday season yet.
Shopping day guide
Not sure which days you should focus on for your post-Thanksgiving sales? Here's a quick rundown of each sale day, its history and which businesses it best suits.
Black Friday. According to Visual Thesaurus, the day after Thanksgiving came to be known as "Black Friday" in the early 1960s, when Philadelphia police officers used it as a negative term to describe the city's holiday shopping traffic jams. The name stuck and spread to other cities, and in the '80s, businesses began put a positive spin on Black Friday by rebranding it as a day for stores to "get back in the black." While larger merchants usually rule Black Friday with midnight (or earlier) openings and storewide sales throughout the day, many small businesses get in on the action with their own in-store and online discounts. Read our Black Friday tips here.
Small Business Saturday. As the name implies, Small Business Saturday is all about celebrating local merchants. Started by American Express during the 2010 holiday season, this sale day encourages consumers to "shop small," and give independent retailers a fighting chance in between the huge Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales of larger competitors. Small Business Saturday is typically geared toward promoting brick-and-mortar retailers, and continues to grow in consumer recognition and spending each year. Read our Small Business Saturday tips here.
Cyber Monday. The days after Thanksgiving are typically associated with in-store shopping and trips to the mall. About a decade ago, e-commerce businesses began noticing that sales increased on the Monday after, when most Americans are back at work after the long weekend. A press release issued in 2005 by the National Retail Federation officially coined the term "Cyber Monday," and by 2010, it had become the biggest online shopping day of the year, the Washington Post reported. Retailers who sell exclusively online love to run sales on Cyber Monday, but those who have brick-and-mortar and e-commerce operations can also take advantage of this shopping day. Read our Cyber Monday tips here.
Although Giving Tuesday is technically not a holiday shopping day, it's worth noting that businesses are starting to get involved in this recent movement, which was started in 2012 as a way to give back to the community. Consumers are still very focused on corporate social responsibility, so it might not be a bad idea to add this "holiday" to your business's calendar and let your customers know about any post-Thanksgiving donations, volunteer work or other charitable initiatives your store is involved in. Read our Giving Tuesday tips here.
What to do right now
Market to loyal customers. Acquiring new customers always requires more time and money than getting repeat customers to come back, and this is especially true during the holiday season. Matt Winn, senior marketing communications manager at e-commerce platform provider Volusion, noted that offering highly personalized discounts and promotions to existing customers can be very effective at encouraging holiday purchases. He also recommended promoting any loyalty programs or newsletters during the holiday shopping weekend to keep customers coming back year-round.
Stay active on social media. Social media has become a great marketing equalizer for businesses of all sizes, and it's in your best interest to use it to your advantage leading up to the holiday shopping season. Spreading the word about your holiday incentives on social media not only puts you in touch with consumers who may be searching for a business like yours, but it also gives you an opportunity to be interactive with prospective customers looking for holiday recommendations, said John Oechsle, president and CEO of Swiftpage, a provider of business technology solutions.
"Promote early and tailor scheduled communications to your audience," Oechsle told Business News Daily. "Personalize your communication and offer the type of customer experience — online and offline — that will turn a customer into a long-standing patron long after the holidays are over."
Get mobile-optimized. Many smaller companies are concerned about boosting their mobile presence, and for good reason: Viswanatha Rachakonda, CEO of digital marketing company iQuanti, said that customers are increasingly more connected via their mobile devices, which is leading to earlier research and longer sales cycles for the holidays.
"The acceleration of app usage ... will [lead to] purchases being made on the move on Amazon or other e-tailers," Rachakonda said. "Ensure that your digital presence is mobile-ready, since the search may be happening on mobile. Your Black Friday sales may [also] be lower than expected. That has been the trend as sales cycles move online and go longer."
Matt Johnston, chief marketing and strategy officer at app analytics company Applause, noted that push notifications on branded mobile apps can be especially effective, but only if they're done right.
"A lot of retailers use [push notifications] like a blunt instrument, which does more harm than good," Johnston said. "Really understand your users and their pace [to] use them effectively."
Offer in-store pickup. For brick-and-mortar retailers worried about online sales eclipsing their foot traffic this holiday season, a smart tactic (if you don't already do this) is offering an in-store pickup option for online purchases. Rodney Mason, chief marketing officer of parago, a customer engagement solutions provider, said that "buy online, pick up in-store" (BOPIS) promotions will create a better connection between the online and in-store customer experience.
"Getting foot traffic will be crucial to getting many retailers back in the black this holiday season," Mason said. "The BOPIS promotion should prove to be a helpful one this holiday season. This strategy is a win-win — shoppers get an attractive deal during the holiday season, and retailers gain more in-store foot traffic and increase the likelihood of incremental purchasing."
Offer additional value. Small businesses often need to charge a bit more than larger retailers for the same items, but that doesn't mean you'll lose customers. Freebies that add value beyond the product itself can help sway a customer who's on the fence.
"Free gift wrapping or an extended warranty for certain items can help mitigate the impact of shoppers comparing the price tag of your products with those on another website," Winn said.
Mistakes to avoid
Arbitrary, storewide discounts. Large retailers can afford to offer across-the-board discounts on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. It can be tempting to slash prices on everything, but as a small business, taking this approach can quickly make profits plummet. Instead, Winn advised offering tiered discounts based on how much money your business can generate per-product or product category.
A tiered discount approach can also work for online sales, with more aggressive discounts for higher-priced items, said Ryan Urban, co-founder of the customer acquisition tool Bounce Exchange. This tactic has been proven to boost overall revenue by increasing the average order value, he said.
Online price-matching. Like storewide discounts, matching online prices can really kill a small brick-and-mortar store's profits. Offering to match a competitor's online price might get people in the door, but ultimately it won't be sustainable.
"A more effective way to compete with online prices is to offer a redemption-based price match, like a rebate," Mason said. "This allows retailers to offer price-matching one product at a time, one consumer at a time, and still offer the best price in market."
Only focusing on Black Friday through Cyber Monday on those days. The post-Thanksgiving holiday shopping weekend isn't a self-contained sales event. Holiday shopping happens before and after, so waiting until the last minute to advertise, or cutting off your discounts as soon as Cyber Monday ends will only hurt your business.
"Online searching for holiday shopping is already picking up prior to Halloween," Urban said. "Beating bigger retailers to shoppers' wallets means offering Black Friday deals a week early, and extending Cyber Monday [deals] through the beginning of December."
This story was originally published in 2014 and updated Sept. 21, 2015.