With two months to go before Thanksgiving, shoppers are already gearing up for a busy holiday sale season. Data from Google revealed that more than a quarter of consumers begin their holiday shopping before Halloween, so retailers need to be ready for the rush.
If you haven't already started prepping your business for the holidays, now is the time to start. Here are a few key areas your marketing and sales efforts should focus on, and what you can do now to ensure a great shopping experience for your customers all season long.
As more and more businesses take their retail operations online, it's incredibly important to provide a seamless, fast website for your customers. A recent report from website performance solutions provider Radware found that slow websites mean fewer sales — 57 percent of consumers will abandon a site that fails to load after 3 seconds.
Small e-commerce companies can't afford to lose this kind of business during such a busy season, so use this time to address any lags or missing features on your website, as well as to identify potential sale trends for the season. Ben Lack — senior director of marketing and business development at Swiftype, a provider of website search tools — noted that data analytics can help you understand and forecast your holiday demand.
"[Website] data ... provides interesting insights into what a company's users are searching for, which queries don't generate results and which pages see the most engagement," Lack said. "Small businesses [should] look first at site search analytics to see which words and phrases their customers are already searching for. Because this data shows customer intent, e-commerce businesses can prioritize the SEO investment based on these specific keywords and phrases."
You'll also want to make sure your website is mobile-optimized for holiday shoppers. Google's "Mobilegeddon" update earlier this year encouraged many businesses to revamp their mobile presence. Even if you've already mobile-optimized your site, give it a checkup to make sure everything is running smoothly, especially if you have a branded app. According to research by marketing solutions provider Steelhouse, consumers spend 82 percent of their mobile time in-app (versus 18 percent on mobile websites), and in-app campaigns are generally more effective than mobile Web campaigns.
"Mobile devices have given retailers accessibility to customers like never before," said Jen Todd Gray, senior vice president of brand, marketing and creative for digital marketing company HelloWorld. "This holiday season, we can expect retailers to use mobile location services like geolocation to reach customers, offering specific, timely deals. For instance, we've seen some retailers share a new mobile coupon each day while customers are in-store. The instant offer piques customer interest and leads to additional sales."
More information: How to Optimize Your E-Commerce Website for Holiday Shoppers
Holiday season shipping
In an age of Amazon Prime and same-day delivery, consumer expectations about e-commerce shipping are higher than ever. Any retailer that's selling online needs to think about realistic shipping times and cutoffs throughout the season to make sure customers get their deliveries before the holidays.
"For the holiday days [like Christmas], make sure you know the cutoffs, so your packages get to customers on time," saidJarrett Streebin, CEO of shipping solutions provider EasyPost. "For daily pickup times, make sure you know these, because they mean the difference of a day or more in delivery time."
Kevon Hills, vice president of research at e-commerce metrics company StellaService, said that, according to his company's 2014 data, 45 percent of companies had "Christmas cutoff" dates after Dec. 19, and he expects this trend of last-minute delivery pledges to continue this season.
"Since later cutoff dates put additional pressure on retailers to deliver on promises in a short amount of time, we also expect to see increased numbers of retailers offering customers the option to buy online and pick up in-store in 2015," Hills said. "We saw retailers like Toys "R" Us and Macy's push their pickup-in-store capabilities after the online cutoff was passed. Retailers with the processes in place to support these initiatives are well positioned to capture last-minute revenue without the risk of not delivering products in time."
Any business that ships products should also focus on optimizing their packaging and fulfillment processes.
"Many carriers have dimensional pricing that fully accounts for compact packaging," Streebin said. "If you work the smallest boxes possible, you can save an enormous amount on shipping. [Also], make sure orders go out within an hour of being placed, and staff up if you need to. The quicker you get orders shipped out, the less backlog you'll have. And make sure to send out tracking numbers so customers know how soon they'll get their packages."
More information: Big Challenges for Small E-Commerce Retailers (and How to Overcome Them)
Keeping online shoppers safe
Online sales means the potential for more businesses to get in on the holiday sales action, but it also means a greater chance for cybercriminals to hack sensitive customer data.
"For many small retailers, the holiday season is a 'make it or break it' time of year," said Jonathan Gossels, president and CEO of IT security and consulting firm SystemExperts. "In addition to traditional merchandizing challenges, they now have to worry about whether their IT infrastructure is up to date and can handle the load securely."
Gossels noted that e-retailer websites and associated back-end systems need to be up to date, compliant with the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS) and able to handle the expected transaction volume throughout the holiday season. He advised year-round compliance and security testing, and emphasized the importance of leaving enough time to fix any problems before the holiday rush picks up.
More information: Cybersecurity: A Small Business Guide
Marketing and social media
You may be planning some great sales for the season, but without the right marketing campaigns, your customers likely won't know about them. Social media, email blasts and even texts play a role in holiday season marketing now, and businesses should be crafting the right messages for the right customers. Here are a few helpful tips from marketing experts:
Use great images. Stock photos of your merchandise may be fine for your purchase page, but in your advertising, an editorial-style image that shows your product as part of a lifestyle is far more effective, said Matt Langie, chief marketing officer at visual marketing and analytics company Curalate.
"When it comes to spending money, experiences are vastly more desirable than things," Langie said, citing an Eventbrite survey. "When preparing your website for the holiday rush, digital merchandisers and e-commerce managers need to take this into consideration. Seeing an image of a real person unwrapping a new gadget does a lot more for the present-day consumer than seeing a stock photo of it somewhere online."
Think native. Native advertising campaigns look and feel more natural because they mimic the format of the platform on which they appear. For instance, sites like BuzzFeed and Thought Catalog publish posts sponsored by advertisers that read like their standard editorial articles. Jamie Tedford, founder and CEO of Brand Networks, said native advertising will be the trend in social media and content marketing for brands this holiday season.
"We've seen a lot of innovation across each native platform this year, and the rollout of new features and capabilities specifically for marketers," Tedford said. "Now, these sites are more than just a place to share interesting content — they are a chance to convert and transact with customers directly on the platform in more relevant native formats."
Segment your marketing campaigns. When you're thinking about how to market your holiday promotions, remember that not all customers are created equal, said Jerry Jao, CEO of retention marketing firm Retention Science. You don't want to waste your profit margins sending discounts to shoppers who just look for deals and then move on.
"Segment your customers carefully by lifetime value," Jao said. "It's the brand-loyal repeat purchasers who should get special treatment. Whether it's a special loyalty campaign or an extra thank-you offer for the holidays, any investment you make into your high-lifetime-value customers will bring you higher returns."
You can find more advice on holiday marketing in the following Business News Daily articles: