Thomas Harpointer  |  10/29/2008

Attention Online Retailer: 12 "Must Dos" to Prepare for the 2008 Holiday Shopping Season

Now's the time for a special focus on customer service.

Whether you’re a retailer or a supplier to retailers or other businesses, this article is for you. This is the time of year when retailers look at making their web sites more customer-friendly, building traffic and getting them tweaked and tuned for the Christmas season. But the same rules apply to business-to-business operations. We all want our web sites to help us make money, and the methods that work for online retailers will work for nonretailers as well. Consider that according to comScore, $29.2 billion was spent online during the 2007 holiday season, marking a 19-percent gain vs. the same period the year prior. According to a recent National Retail Federation survey, more than 40 percent of shoppers say that they will start the 2008 holiday shopping before Halloween.

Retailers are already deeply involved in the 2008 holiday shopping season. The fourth quarter is vital to a retailer’s overall yearly success, with anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of sales coming during this time frame. Considering that business-to- business sites look for steady income all year long and not just during the holiday season, the following tips are even more relevant.

Whether you need to build an entirely new online storefront or update your existing site, planning these efforts now will pull your holiday sled ahead in the race. In addition, testing new web site features ahead of prime holiday shopping time will allow you to make any necessary fixes before costing you lost customers and lost dollars.

Researching the market and planning and testing new strategies are important tasks to put on any retailer’s holiday to-do list. So how do you begin to prepare your online marketing strategy?


Start here

We know retailers are busy and don’t have the luxury of being able to devote a lot of time to planning an online marketing strategy for the holidays. That’s why we’ve put together this list of 12 “must do” action steps to begin now.

1. Spruce up your online store. Online shoppers today are more sophisticated than ever. They simply won’t buy from a company they don’t trust. On the internet, your web site is your business. It’s the primary point of interaction between your company and your customers. Therefore, it’s important to think of your online storefront not as a brochure but as an extension of your business. The quality of your online store will either directly drive sales revenues or drive customers to your competition. Therefore, if your storefront design looks dated, many potential customers simply won’t have the confidence to buy from you. This is a perfect opportunity to update your storefront design and give it a fresh new look for the holiday shopping season.

2. Launch an e-mail marketing campaign if you haven’t done so already. E-mail marketing works. The Direct Marketing Association reported that e-mail marketing can deliver up to a $51.45 return on investment for every dollar spent. That’s partly due to the fact that e-mail recipients can share their e-mail promotions with friends at no cost whatsoever to the advertiser. With the rising cost of postal mail, an effective e-mail marketing strategy isn’t only an option but a must-have for any serious online merchant trying to target to both online shoppers and online buyers.

One of the top challenges e-tailers face when it comes to e-mail marketing is list-building. Many times, their list of e-mail addresses simply isn’t large enough to have a measurable effect, and they don’t have a solid strategy in place for building that list. The time to start building your e-mail list is now. If you have a retail store, give every one of your walk-in customers proper incentive to join your e-mail list. Encourage them to forward your e-mails to their friends and family. Use a professional e-mail solution to help you build a list and manage your e-mail campaigns.

3. Keep an eye on trends. Yes, the economy is unstable. Yes, consumers have less discretionary income and are more price-conscious these days. Then there’s the competition. However, there is a silver lining. Consumers love deals. They’re highly receptive to online coupons and discounts. Be sure that your shopping cart system supports the use of coupon codes (such as free shipping) and include those codes in your e-mail newsletters to drive traffic to your store. Consider the lifetime value of each customer and give new customers special incentives. With a professional online storefront system, it’s easy to do.

4. Search-engine-optimize your online presence. Keep in mind that most shoppers will use search engines to look for the products that you carry and not the name of your store. Therefore, make sure that each product page is properly search-engine-optimized--that is, coded with proper page titles, meta tags, keywords, and descriptions. Your shopping cart system should be able to generate static HTML pages for search engines to index. If it doesn’t, your product pages will never be found. If you don’t have the time or in-house expertise to search-engine-optimize your online store, by all means, hire a professional services firm.

5. Iron out the kinks. Whether the kink is on your web site, e-mail blast, or online advertisement, now is the time to iron out all possible problems to avoid costly errors down the road. For example, if your web site loads too slowly, find a better web hosting provider; or when your e-mail campaigns aren’t getting into your customer’s in-boxes, work with a professional service provider that can help test your campaigns and build strong relationships with internet service providers to get your e-mails delivered.

Today, a consumer’s first impression of a retailer is based on its web presence. If consumers aren’t impressed with a retailer’s web site, find errors within the site, or can’t find what they’re looking for, most won’t waste their gas money to drive to the retail store.

6. Focus on providing customer reviews, feedback, and testimonials. A recent comScore study revealed that more than three-quarters of review users in nearly every industry category reported that the review had a significant influence on their purchase. If you’re selling products online, enabling customers to provide product ratings and reviews not only enhances the user experience, but also gives prospective customers the confidence to buy and creates customer loyalty. So, if a customer was happy with his or her purchase from your online store, make sure you build up your credibility and add it to your web site. Keep in mind, your best prospects are your existing customers. Getting their feedback is an easy and inexpensive way to improve your business. Survey your existing and past customers by posting a survey on your web site, and send your customers an e-mail invitation to participate. It’s fast, easy, and less expensive than direct mail or telemarketing.

7. Keep a consistent message throughout your web site. Web sites need to be updated with new content on a regular basis to keep customers coming back. Focus on message consistency. If you’ve started an e-mail marketing campaign but didn’t have the time for the necessary adjustments to make the message in the e-mail campaign cohesive with the message on web site, make the updates now. Keeping your web site content fresh not only sends a message to your customers but also your competitors. Therefore, when you’re ready to give your web site a makeover, be sure that monthly maintenance is part of the plan. All forms of communication, including your web site, e-mail campaigns, collateral material, and advertising, should consistently deliver the same message to maximize the potential of your holiday-season marketing and advertising efforts.

8. Use an e-newsletter to help build an e-mail list. An e-newsletter is a must-have tool that makes it easy and cost-effective to communicate with a mass audience. According to JupiterResearch, e-mail marketing spending will grow to $2.1 billion in 2012 from $1.2 billion in 2007. First, make sure you have an e-newsletter in place for 2008. If you don’t, jump on the sailed ship and get one. Second, make sure that you’re promoting it. Add an e-newsletter sign-up form to your home page and give visitors proper incentive to subscribe. If you don’t have a large e-mail list, no problem. An easy list-building method is adding a forwarding feature to the newsletter so your subscribers can forward your newsletter to their friends, family, and colleagues.

9. Entice shoppers with promotions and incentives. Shoppers love deals. Coupons, discounts, sales, and special bonuses can all serve as powerful incentives to get shoppers to take action and buy. Often, the right incentive, such as free shipping, means the difference between a sale and an abandoned shopping cart.

In a recent ICOM survey of U.S. shoppers, 67 percent said that they are much more likely, or somewhat more likely, to use coupons during a recession. What does this mean to retailers? What are you waiting for? Send in those coupons! By sending them via an e-mail campaign, you can also avoid wasting dollars by sending coupons via postal mail. Kill two birds with one stone.

10. Don’t forget about adding a clear, concise call to action. Be clear about what you want your reader to do: “Visit this web page,” “Download this white paper,” “Complete this form,” etc. Once you’ve decided on your call to action, be sure to make it obvious. Holiday shoppers are far too busy to think about what they are supposed to do on your web site or e-mail campaign. Use clear text or graphical links that read “Click Here” or “Download Now.” Also be sure that the links contain unique URLs that can be tracked. Keep in mind that getting readers to click a link from an e-mail is a smaller step than getting them to call a phone number from a catalog. Therefore, with proper design and copywriting, response rates from an e-mail campaign can be significantly higher than from a postal mail campaign.

11. Take advantage of viral marketing opportunities. By leveraging the built-in features of recipients’ e-mail software (i.e. Outlook), savvy marketers can transform a standard e-mail campaign into a powerful and inexpensive viral marketing initiative. Encouraging recipients to “share” or “forward” the e-mail to a friend or colleague helps to not only spread the message but also to continually increase the size of the e-mail list for future mailings. Best of all, a recipient can forward an e-mail at zero cost to the marketer. Don’t miss out on this simple opportunity to gather more holiday shoppers.

12. Prepare to test and refine your strategy. Be sure to track the traffic to your online store and monitor conversions. Any fool can drive web-site traffic, but converting shoppers to buyers takes skill, careful analysis, and patience. Be prepared to make adjustments to your storefront design. Test various promotions and offers. Track what links visitors are clicking on the most and what they’re actually buying. Review your daily, weekly, and monthly site traffic to determine your peaks and valleys. Which days of the week is traffic highest? What’s the best day to send an e-mail campaign? Which promotion generates the highest click-through?


Know these answers. If all this sounds too technical or you’re simply too busy to keep track of all this, consider working with a professional e-commerce consultant who can work closely with you to maximize your online sales through the 2008 holiday shopping season.


About The Author

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Thomas Harpointer

Thomas Harpointner, founder and chief executive officer of AIS Media Inc., is involved with key customers, partners, and community activities. He is responsible for the vision and direction of AIS Media, assisting with corporate strategy, marketing, product development, and business development. Prior to founding AIS Media, Harpointner served as a consultant for Fortune 500 companies, where he developed the awareness of a market need for quality services that would allow such companies to access new technology and ways of selling in the 21st century. Clients included Royal Insurance, Nextel, Cigna Financial, and many more. Harpointner’s desire to help small and midsized businesses led to the launch of AIS Media in 1997.