Holiday retail sales are expected to hover around $680 billion this year, according to the National Retail Federation. Given these high stakes, businesses are looking to do all they can to not leave any money on the table.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to preparing a retail operation, whether it's ecommerce or bricks-and-mortar, for an influx of business during the holiday season. But small business experts and experienced owners agree that a blend of time-tested, common-sense steps and innovative approaches can help small businesses take on the holiday sales rush.
Here are nine key steps to get your business ready for the holiday season.
1. Plan and set seasonal goals.
Planning is ongoing for every business, but preparation for the busiest shopping time of the year should include a detailed review of last year's holiday sales performance. This information can be used to determine inventory, tailor deals, create promotional offers and set revenue goals for the season.
"Make sure that the goals you set for yourself are reasonable and attainable," said Stefan Lewinger, founder and CEO of sock subscription company Sock Fancy. He also reminds fellow business owners that they don't have to define their goals solely on revenue. "Other metrics, like customer engagement and social media following, are . . . great tools to measure your success."
Also, spend some time researching the holiday sales strategies of your top competitors and determining the marketing approaches you will use to reach your target customer. Lewinger suggests getting your products included in holiday gift guides or "best of" lists.
2. Review and upgrade technology.
You need to make sure your technology is ready and able to handle the onslaught of holiday shoppers. You don't want to lose potential customers because your website is down or you can't process credit card orders. This means taking the time earlier in the year to upgrade security software, test checkout and payment processes, check the usability of search functions, and make sure your website is user-friendly and able to handle an increase in traffic.
"Small businesses need to ensure that all channels – whether in-store, online or mobile – are all up to date and running smoothly," said Chris Francis, vice president of market development at Worldpay, a provider of payments processing technology. "They must run the necessary tests and evaluations to ensure their technology is working properly, and to avoid any bugs or malfunctions from losing sales."
3. Embrace omnichannel customer experiences.
This year, one of the most prominent trends impacting holiday sales is omnichannel retailing, which is defined as an integrated sales approach that creates a seamless shopping experience for customers regardless of whether they are shopping from a desktop, mobile device or store. For example, these customers may buy online but pick up the item in the store, or they may use a smartphone app to compare prices and then make a purchase through a company's website.
"By embracing all available sales channels, small businesses can enjoy increased sales during the holiday season," said Francis. According to Francis, omnichannel shoppers are more likely to return to make additional purchases and to recommend brands to family and friends.
"Remember what small businesses want to do is to not only increase contact with their customers, but increase the value of that contact too – and they need to be focused on that fact when evaluating omnichannel solutions," he said.
One way businesses can be responsive to omnichannel shoppers is by honoring online coupons and in-store deals interchangeably. "If you don't have your holiday deals out now – and you should – make sure that all of them are scannable for your in-store sales," said Mike Catania, chief technology officer of coupon website PromotionCode.org.
"Nothing is more frustrating than knowing you have a store near you but, in order to get a good deal, you have to order online," added RaShea Drake, B2B specialist with Verizon.
4. Cultivate online sales.
According to Amit Mathradas, general manager and head of Small Business North America for PayPal, there has been disproportionate holiday shopping growth from online channels. A recently released Walker Sands survey of 1,600 consumers found that 41 percent of respondents completed all or most of their holiday shopping online in 2016, and nearly half said they now prefer to shop online. Additionally, according to Deloitte's retail holiday sales forecast, overall ecommerce sales will grow by 18 to 21 percent from last year's shopping season.
Establishing an online store is imperative for all small businesses interested in capturing this ever-growing segment of the holiday market. "An online store makes it easy to show off your holiday specials, create loyalty programs and showcase special products," said Nicolas Beique, founder and CEO of merchant account provider Helcim.
Mathradas said that to further capitalize on the growth of online business, merchants need to focus on reducing shopping-cart abandonment (adding items to a virtual shopping cart but not completing the purchase) – particularly on mobile devices.
"Online sales and an emphasis on mobile are categorical imperatives," he said. "A site not rendering properly on a mobile device, or any hiccups in payment processing, can cause a ripple effect in terms of lost sales."
5. 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 manager of segment market communications at HID Global, a manufacturer of secure identity solutions, said that offering highly personalized discounts and promotions to existing customers can be a very effective way to encourage holiday purchases.
Richard Stevenson, head of corporate communications at cloud-driven ecommerce software provider ePages, agreed, noting that special "holiday countdown" promotions can encourage customers to come back to your store throughout the season.
"Each day, [you can offer] a special price or product combination promotion," Stevenson said. "These can be announced on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. This will not only encourage a direct sale but also create engagement and repeat visits from shoppers curious to see what the next promotion will be."
6. Use social media to promote your brand.
Use tools such as search engines and social media so your customers can find you and stay informed about your products and services when they are ready to buy, Mathradas said.
"On a platform like Facebook, you can target the right demographic and ensure that there is a clear call to action, whether a click or a call to drive towards a sale," he added. "Similarly, investing in search terms via Google ensures that you are easily found by customers looking for similar products. This is especially critical for [niche] businesses … to target the right customer as they follow the path to purchase."
Developing targeted promotional campaigns gives you an opportunity to interact with prospective customers who are looking for holiday recommendations. "Think giveaways, think videos, think content that people want to share with their friends," said Shauna Armitage, chief marketing strategist with Making Moxie, a marketing firm that serves small businesses.
"Engagement and virality is the name of the game. Don't just post for the sake of posting," she added. All your social media activity should help you increase brand awareness and customer loyalty.
Drake recommends using social media to market early and market often. "Use Facebook, Instagram and Twitter this holiday season to keep in touch with your audience and even have short-term flash sales to keep them checking back with your social accounts, like they're an insider," she said.
7. Provide exceptional customer service.
During this high-stress time of year, businesses should ensure that all team members, regardless of position, have the information they need to be responsive to customers' varying needs.
"Warehouse personnel and customer service [staff] should be familiar with each holiday campaign so that they can fulfill the right orders, and properly and promptly address customers' issues," said Katy Smith, content manager for CompAndSave, an online provider of printer ink, toner and accessories.
If necessary, businesses should also be ready to ask current staff to work longer hours, hire and train seasonal workers, or lengthen hours of operation to accommodate an increase in customer demands.
8. Offer competitive delivery options.
You can distinguish yourself from your competitors and win the hearts of last-minute shoppers if you can offer free shipping or quick delivery. "Free shipping raises the perceived value of your product and simultaneously lowers buyer friction," said Augie Kennady, media relations director for ShipMonk, which provides multichannel order fulfillment services.
A smart tactic for brick-and-mortar retailers worried about online sales eclipsing their foot traffic this holiday season is to offer an in-store-pickup option for online purchases. Rodney Mason, CEO of Nurture Ranch, a provider of grass-fed beef and meats, said that "buy online, pick up in store" (BOPIS) promotions 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."
9. Plan for post-holiday business.
How you interact with shoppers after the holidays will leave a lasting impact and help determine if they become repeat customers. Lewinger advises finding ways to maintain the momentum of the holiday season well into the new year. Use this time to streamline the process for handling returns as well as develop a strategy for encouraging customers with returns to use their time in your business to make additional purchases.
"Find ways to engage with the new customers you made over the holidays as well as reaching out to other potential customers," said Lewinger. "Planning for the post-holiday season can be just as important to make sure you can hop right back into regular sales once the holiday rush comes to an end."
Additional reporting by Nicole Fallon. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.