E-commerce Link: Holiday Countdown
Whether they start their shopping well before Thanksgiving or mere minutes before Santa climbs into his sleigh, holiday shoppers expect a broad choice of products, easy shopping, good prices and rapid, on-time delivery. These are some high hopes, but with carefully crafted marketing and merchandising, you can keep customers happy and sales high throughout your holiday and post-holiday seasons.
Gift giving is, of course, the overriding driver of holiday sales. In its October 2006 report, U.S. eCommerce: Five-Year Forecast and Data Overview, Forrester Research found that half of all online buying is for others, and this percentage increases greatly during November and December. Research from ComScore further reveals that e-commerce spending for the holidays grew 26 percent from 2005 to 2006.
There are multiple phases of online holiday shopping that are strongly determined by the calendar. Customer motivations change as the end of the season draws near. To make the most of the holiday season, you must adapt your marketing and merchandising to the tides and currents of consumer motivations.
Now through Thanksgiving: Promote early shopping by assuaging concerns.
Forrester Research notes in its March 2007 report, The Big, Ugly Obstacles Holding Back eCommerce, that 32 percent of 2006 holiday shoppers reported problems ranging from customer service to fulfillment glitches. Many shoppers hesitate to place online orders because of these and other problems. Indeed, in the same report Forrester Research notes that of the 2006 online holiday shoppers who reported problems, 37 percent failed to receive gifts in time, while 35 percent reported ordering an item only to find it was back-ordered or out of stock.
To combat these fears, build a worry-free shopping environment. Prominently display your return and privacy policies, product guarantees, security certification logos, product in-stock status and customer service contact information. Make it easy for your customers to feel confident shopping with you.
Technological solutions can help, too. Online gift retailer RedEnvelope features a “Shop Now, Ship Later” tool that lets shoppers select a future delivery date. This allows its customers to shop at their leisure before the holiday season becomes too busy. It also helps ensure gifts will be in stock, and eliminates the need to try to buy at the right moment so delivery occurs at the right time.
Encourage early purchasing by emphasizing any areas where you have a particular breadth or depth of product offerings, such as unusual sizes or hard-to-find merchandise. Remind customers that stocks are limited! Temper this tone of urgency with discounts such as free shipping for those who sign up for e-mail updates, or offer free gift wrap once shoppers meet a certain price threshold.
Thanksgiving through Dec. 10: Market and merchandise to drive sales.
After Thanksgiving, holiday shoppers really start to get into the swing of things. They are looking for a reason to buy from you; trigger purchasing with supportive messaging, promotions and marketing tactics throughout your site. Keep the “worry-free” tactics outlined above in place, but take some additional measures.
If you have a special gifts category, promote it throughout the site. If you don’t, create new product categories based on recipient, price, personality, age or theme—whatever best matches your target customer segments.
Increase your use of paid search. Focus on niche and seasonal keywords so your clickthroughs are more likely to come from shoppers who know what they want. Make sure they land on the most relevant page so they don’t have to go hunting around once they are on your site. The more closely the landing page content matches the description in the paid search listing, the higher the conversion rate.
This also is a great time to launch aggressive holiday e-mail campaigns. Segment these campaigns to offer compelling personalized gift recommendations and special offers to loyal customers. Consider a “gift of the day” e-mail campaign. In 2006, Sears conducted a “Pick of the Day” campaign that put ideas at shoppers’ fingertips. Even without deep personalization, a campaign like this can be very successful if you remind buyers who they may be shopping for: “For Mom,” “For the Kids” or even “For the Boss.”
In your e-mails, promote your discount offers or incentives. Free shipping always is a strong driver. Depending on your product mix, consider content-based e-mails with holiday tips and time-savers, such as recipes from your cookware site or kids’ activity ideas from your toy site. In doing so, you not only give people gift ideas, but also position your business as a holiday resource.
Dec. 10 through Dec. 25: Help late shoppers count down during the crunch.
Despite concerns about shipping deadlines and product availability, there are plenty of frantic late shoppers who place orders in the final hours leading up to a holiday. ComScore reports that, in 2006, the final three weeks of the holiday season saw a major surge in spending as procrastinators came out in full force, driving a 31 percent increase over the same period in 2005. The week immediately before Christmas saw the biggest surge, with a 45 percent increase over the same week in 2005.
Set customer expectations by overcommunicating the details of these last-minute purchases. Emphasize delivery time lines and showcase products guaranteed to arrive on time for the holiday. Do this on your site, in your e-mail and in your targeted paid search ads for hard-to-find items you have in stock.
Customers see shipping costs as a necessary evil and often gamble that a less expensive shipping method just might get Barbie and her Beachside Condo to little Suzy on time. Consider offering premium shipping discounts or free shipping upgrades to top customers. They will jump at this, and you will become the hero for solving their big problem.
In 2006, retailer American Eagle Outfitters combined two of these approaches with its “Make Sure They Get It” campaign. It offered free shipping on orders of $100 or more with the caveat that orders were placed by a certain date. It wisely posted different order cutoff dates for different geographical regions. With one move it discouraged last-minute shopping, became the affordable delivery hero and set appropriate customer expectations.
Gift certificates and gift cards are becoming a de facto fallback for the late shopper, with sales jumping 18 percent in 2006 from the previous year. Promote them aggressively throughout your site as a last-minute solution guaranteed to arrive on time. In addition, free gift cards are a great incentive to offer big spenders.
Dec. 26 and beyond: Stretch the season with compelling discounts and messaging.
Two tactics work in concert to keep sales coming in. First, in e-mails and on key site pages, provide prominent links to your “Sale” section. Let shoppers sort through compelling discount categories such as “Post-holiday Clearance,” “New Year’s Specials” or “Winter Sale.” Drive bargain hunters to join your e-mail list with offers of additional discounts if they sign up.
Second, convert visitors who want to return or exchange items with a tailored promotion. After the 2006 holiday season, Wal-Mart ran a campaign encouraging shoppers to “Get the Things You Really Wanted.” Its approach had a broad appeal, promoting product categories rather than individual products.
Lastly, make sure your links to return and exchange policies are prominent and easily accessible.
Holiday shoppers rely on the Web to deliver the right gifts with ease. Just as you change your merchandising messaging to correspond with the traditional seasons of the year, break down the winter holiday season into separate sections and market to your customers’ changing needs.
Ken Burke is founder and CEO of MarketLive, an e-commerce technology services provider based in Petaluma, Calif. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.