Since you’re probably either still hunkering down to avoid the lingering effects of this year’s extreme August weather or basking in the glow of your summer vacation, it’s hard to muster more than lackluster holiday spirit. Regardless of your spirit, it’s never too early to begin considering an e-commerce strategy for the holidays.
All indicators predict that this year will be the biggest for e-commerce thus far. It follows a trend that sees online sales increasing from year to year and outpacing non-e-commerce growth (see chart below). The 2010 holiday season brought forth the singularly biggest day for online sales yet, topping $1 billion in online sales on Cyber Monday (the Monday after Thanksgiving). Consumers are also beginning to do their Black Friday shopping from the comfort of their couch, frustrated by jostling through crowds and waiting in long lines, only to find that what they wanted is already sold out.
In general, e-commerce outperforms same-store sales at many chains, thanks to shoppers choosing to research products online and then using the convenience of online shopping to complete the transaction. This trend holds for both business goods and consumer goods. Traditional brick-and-mortar businesses such as Williams-Sonoma have online sales accounting for 33% of total sales, and Staples counts online as 40% of their total sales.
So how do you capitalize on this trend? You may be concerned an e-commerce presence will snipe traffic from your brick-and-mortar stores. But if you embrace both, the two venues can provide your customers the choice they demand while providing you sales traffic between the channels.
For instance, in-store pickup of products ordered online increases impulse add-on purchases in-store. Consumers who can’t find the options they want in-store can go online to order exactly what they want, ensuring that your brand gets the sale. As long as salespeople are well trained and there’s perhaps a kiosk in-store, brick-and-mortars may even be able to stock less inventory on shelves.
Simply put, ignore digital channels at the cost to your bottom line.
An article aptly titled “Online back-to-school shoppers to spend 40% more than those who only shop in stores” from July 28, 2011, offers, “Specifically, online back-to-school shoppers will spend a third more than all shoppers for shoes and school supplies, and fully 68% more for electronics and computer related goods. Like most everyone, online back-to-school shoppers have felt the economic pinch, and to that end plan to shop for sales more often, comparison shop online, find and use coupons, and buy more generic or store brands, among other money-saving strategies. Much of that research will be facilitated by smartphones and/or tablet devices that many online back-to-school shoppers already own.”
What Features Do Consumers Want in Their Online Shopping Experience?
- Free Shipping – comScore’s postmortem of the 2010 holiday season reports that free shipping was used in more than half of all 2010 holiday e-commerce transactions, up significantly from 2009.
- Gift Ideas – Help consumers figure out the perfect gift for a hard-to-buy-for person. See Amazon’s best-in-class gift ideas.
- Comparison Shopping – Users want to feel that they are getting the most bang for their buck. Review Forbes’ best in class.
- Research – Consumers want to know more about the products they’re considering. Specifications and trade write-ups help consumers understand what the professionals think, but ratings and reviews from other consumers also strongly influence purchasing decisions. In a National Retail Federation (NRF) survey, shoppers were asked about how the economy was changing their behavior: 30.7% planned to do more comparison shopping online and 12.3% planned to shop more online in general.
- Pick Up In-Store – Consumers who have waited until the last minute to purchase gifts appreciate the convenience of shopping online, but with the option to pick it up in-store so shipping isn’t a factor.
- Coupons – Budget-conscious consumers who are trying to save money can be driven to make a purchase, given digital coupon incentives delivered though the website, email or mobile channels. In the same NRF survey, over 36% of respondents were likely to use more coupons. According to an article in eMarketer about 2011 back-to-school shopping (a good predictor of holiday sales,) “…the internet is viewed as a valuable source for saving money. The leading reason why shoppers…planned to shop online was because they expected to find better discounts (70%), were able to research prices and products (63%) and avoid potential out-of-stock items in-store (40%).”
Create a Positive User Experience
Your user experience is the digital reflection of your brick-and-mortar; keep it friendly, stocked and easy to use.
To deliver the most impact to your busy holiday shoppers, simply maintaining an e-commerce site just isn’t enough. Usability is key.
- Users must be able to quickly find a specific item (like using an intelligent search), but the site itself must facilitate browsing with clearly defined categories and hierarchies.
- Upselling or cross-selling is also important, using “products like this” or “customers who bought this also bought this.”
- Clear product images with multiple views and the ability to enlarge the image give consumers the confidence to click the buy button.
- A detailed description of the product, including dimensions, colors and other key attributes, must be readily available.
- Lastly, a site must instill consumer trust by displaying guarantees, return policies and accurate shipping dates.
The more touchpoints that are available to consumers, the more likely they’ll find you and purchase from you.
An important factor to a successful e-commerce holiday season is driving high traffic to your online product offerings. Money is being left on the table if you don’t consider using multiple channels to deliver the most impact to your busy holiday shoppers:
- Mobile – Mobile couponing or QR codes to provide more detailed descriptions and/or ratings and reviews. It’s particularly helpful for on-the-go consumers to find your location.
- Geolocating – Offer specials for check-in with Foursquare, Gowalla or Facebook Locations.
- Facebook – Integrated shopping, sales alerts, specials, recommendations, single sign-on to reduce cart abandonment.
- Twitter – An ideal channel for promoting sales alerts, specials, recommendations that can generate social media buzz.
- Online – Sales, free shipping, printable/online coupons, product comparisons, consumer ratings and reviews, in-store pickup (to increase impulse purchases), adequate inventory, callouts and/or billboards.
- Email – Hold “secret sales” or a “deal of the day” and offer other incentives for email sign-up.
Test It for Success
Unavailable or broken sites are like locking your doors on Black Friday.
By far, the single most important preparation for a successful holiday season is testing to ensure your servers and e-commerce engines can handle the huge volume. Nothing frustrates a consumer more than getting a busy server error or spending time browsing and shopping only to discover they cannot check out. All your investments and innovations for successful online holiday sales can be ruined by poor server performance. Make it a priority to ensure your technical infrastructure is in place to support the demand from your varied advertising channels.
A personal anecdote: There is a certain big-box retailer that offers fantastic Black Friday deals. I’ve been at their doors at 6 a.m. twice, shopped their sales, only to discover the slow-moving checkout line extends all the way around the store, guaranteeing a two-hour wait. I abandoned my basket the first year, and the second year, I checked the state of the impossible checkout line before even bothering to shop. I never returned to that retailer to purchase holiday gifts. Last year, I decided to try their online shop and see if I could get some of those amazing deals. Their site was incredibly slow, but I persevered, only to have my cart time out and empty at checkout. At this point, I won’t shop that retailer ever again. And yes, I tell my friends about those experiences, increasing the probability that they also will not shop that retailer during the holidays.
Remember, when your eye is on the bottom line, online and offline shopping can be complementary experiences providing great service to your consumers. Do you want happy brand advocates or vocal brand dissenters?
So while the leaves may not yet have begun to change, it’s time to plan your e-commerce strategy and spiff up your online store for the holidays. Your brick-and-mortar stores would never advance into the holiday season without adequate preparation. Your online presence should be no different.