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Preparing Your E-Commerce Site Early for the Holidays

During the lazy late summer months, the last thing you might be thinking about is the upcoming holiday season. Yet, the notion of Christmas in the summer time really isn’t that far off base when it comes to your e-commerce shop.Preparing Your E-Commerce Site Early for the Holidays We all know the holiday shopping season can quickly turn chaotic so, particularly if you’re new to the e-commerce game, you need to start preparing yourself and your site for holiday shoppers well in advance of the holidays.

Depending on the size and scope of your site as well as the time you can dedicate to the prep work, you might want to consider starting the preparation in July or August.  The “Back-to-School” rush is usually a good time to start preparing for the holidays.  It might sound crazy to begin prepping your site for the holiday season in the middle of summer, but prepping well in advance is key to success.  The tips that we’re providing below for getting your e-commerce site ready certainly apply to the holiday shopping season but they are also critical to the overall success of your business website no matter what time of year it is.

The one thing that all e-commerce entrepreneurs learn very quickly is that preparing for the holiday season early is the only safe option.

Being unprepared for the holiday rush can destroy your credibility and negatively impact your business for years to come.

Here is a list of our best tips and advice for e-commerce site owners on preparing early for the upcoming holiday season:

Remove All Your Site’s Roadblocks

Online shoppers want what they want when they want it. They want to get in, find what they need, make a purchase, and get out. The more roadblocks and difficulties they encounter in the shopping path on your site, the less jolly your holiday season will be.  For starters, make sure that you supply contact information clearly and concisely either in the footer on your site or somewhere else where it is prominently located and easy to find.  There’s nothing more aggravating or suspicious than a missing telephone number, no email address and hard to find contact information.  Nothing screams “untrustworthy” more than hard-to-find contact information.  Be sure to display the hours that your customer service representative(s) will be available each day as well.  Customers who get frustrated trying to find contact information and customer support information won’t stick around long.

Setup a Customer Support Plan

If you rely on a customer support team to service your customers, you need to start prepping them now as well. Customer support can make or break a business during the holidays.  Your team needs to be properly trained and knowledgeable about the inventory you sell. Good customer service representatives are a valuable asset to have on your team.  Not only do they need to be trained in basic customer service skills, they need to be prepared to manage even the most peculiar customer support scenarios effectively.  Email support questions should be answered appropriately and within a 24 period during the holidays and no later than 48 hours in all other situations. Customer support should have a protocol to be followed and as the site owner, you should shop your own store and test your own support team’s abilities on a regular basis. Your goal should be to find complaints before the customer does.

Product Details and Descriptions

Many consumers will not shop online simply because they can’t adequately view purchase items well enough. To ensure convenience for your customers, you need to create product details and descriptions that provide enough information that your customers can comfortably and accurately make a purchase decision. Consumers want to be able to see the item for sale (several angles are ideal) and want to know as much as they can about your merchandise.  At the very least, try to enhance your product descriptions for all your existing products by adding more descriptive text (AKA relevant keywords).  You might also consider adding additional products specifically geared towards the holiday season.

In addition to the product information you provide, customers appreciate what others are saying. Enabling your site to display consumer reviews, ratings, and product comparisons can be a valuable tool for consumers when making purchase decisions. Providing such information is also valuable to your company because it can increase your conversion rates, help reduce the amount of product returns you need to deal with, and decrease the amount of time your customer support team needs to deal with problems.

Be Clear About Holiday Deadlines

As you prepare for the holiday onslaught, be sure you are VERY clear with your customers about cut off dates for orders to be purchased, shipped, and delivered well in time for the holidays.

  • Last minute shoppers shop online predominantly so be sure to include specific dates and times about delivery cut-offs prominently throughout your site, including your home page and all product pages.
  • Communicate any pre-ordering options that you might offer for new products.
  • Use explicit wording such as “Shipping Deadlines” or “Shipping Cutoff” rather than generic descriptions like “Shipping Info” or “Shipping Details”.
  • Clearly indicate any shipping restrictions or delivery limitations, for example outside of the continental U.S. (Alaska, Hawaii) or for international locations.   If different states or countries have different delivery cutoffs, make this clear.
  • Prominently display all available shipping options and their respective prices: standard, expedited and overnight/express.

Gift Certificates, Gift Cards and Gift Wrapping

The amount of gift cards being sold each year is growing steadily. They are an extremely popular choice for all occasions but especially around the holidays. When you start promoting your gift cards, be sure to display them prominently on the home page and in the navigation bar of your site, as well in other strategically placed areas, such as your shopping cart and email confirmations that you send your customers.  You should provide the functionality in your shopping cart that will allow customers to redeem their gift cards or gift certificates in the checkout process. Strategic placement of your gift cards can help increase sales. It can also be an option for the last minute shoppers who missed out on the cutoff dates but still need a great gift idea.

Offering gift wrapping as a “value-added” service might not be possible for some merchants, but for smaller retailers, a gift wrapping service can help differentiate your offering from your competitors and build loyalty from your customer base.  Not to mention, gift wrapping can also provide an incremental source of revenue.

Setting Up Product Feeds

Because of the ease with which customers can compare prices online, you should start the process of setting up product feeds at shopping comparison engines like Shopzilla, NexTag and GoogleBase.  Consumers actively use these engines to compare and lock in the lowest prices available so you’d be advised to start using them.  Setting up product feeds now should benefit you with the upcoming holiday sales push but you’ll also benefit year round from having your products listed and catalogued in these key shopping site databases.

Update Your Product Catalog

You should start immediately to update your product catalog and inventory levels, if applicable.  You should post your product inventory levels on each product page for customers to avoid angering them at checkout time with no inventory, but also to create a sense of urgency when your inventory counts are getting low.  The last thing you want to do is build up a customer’s desire with one of your best selling products only to disappoint with a “SOLD OUT” sign after they complete the checkout process.  Be on the lookout when updating your product catalog for cross-selling and up-selling opportunities where you can bundle and promote related product items that your customers will benefit from.

Also consider cross-merchandising your products with “theme” pages for specific holidays and promotions.  During the holiday season in particular, you should display the product in its home category (eg. “skirts”) but also be able to cross-merchandise products in various themes or event-related categories “Gifts for Mom,” “Back to School Sale,” “Hot Gift Ideas,” etc.

Buying Guides, Bestsellers and Hot Gift Ideas

Most merchants will already know what their best selling items are and should feature those items prominently on the home page.   You might also consider developing profiles of prospective purchase items based on the person who is receiving the gift that can serve as buying guides for your customers (eg. “Gifts for Mom”, “Gifts for Dad”, “Gifts for Kids”, etc.)  You might also develop pricing “buckets” to make it easier for budget conscious consumers to easily segment and navigate your product line (eg. “Gifts for Under $20”, “Gift for Under $50”, etc.)

Consider A/B Testing & Landing Page Optimization

The summer leading up to the holiday season offers an ideal time to try improving your conversion rates on your site’s landing pages by experimenting with different design templates, creative elements and features of your site.  A/B testing is an optimization methodology that provides site owners with the ability to compare and test various elements on their sites to see how it impacts the conversion rates.  The idea is to collect some data now in the late summer and fall in time for the holiday season.  There are some very simple and affordable testing solutions that you can try out immediately.

Google’s Website Optimizer is a free website testing and optimization tool that gives you the ability to improve the performance of your existing websites and traffic without spending a dime. You can use Google’s Website Optimizer to test and optimize your site design, improving the conversion rates of your site and ultimately, increase your sales and ROI regardless of your experience level, whether you’re a novice online marketer or a professional.

For WordPress site owners, there’s a Google Optimizer Plugin that quickly and easily integrates the Google Website Optimizer code into your blog posts and pages for you.  Downloading the plugin and installing it takes only about 15 minutes and you can be up and running your first Optimizer experiment in no time at all.

Use Creative Promotions to Drive Sales and Build Loyalty

Try to come up with some creative promotions for your holiday marketing efforts.  Simply discounting your prices in order to drive traffic is too short-sighted and can hamstring your ability to raise prices on a long term basis.  Utilize promotions that will build customer loyalty and repeat business.  Creating urgency with time-sensitive promotions and “order-by” dates are also effective.

Here are some additional holiday promotional ideas to consider:

  • Promote your hot, new product releases early in the holiday season.  You could even offer your customers the ability to “pre-order” these new releases to ensure availability to them.
  • Try building co-branded promotions with key vendors, suppliers and manufacturers, such as “Nintendo Weekend” or “Burberry Day”, for example.  You might ask your most important vendors about participating as a co-op marketing opportunity with advertising support or product discounts for the limited time offer.
  • Solicit your visitors for holiday promotional ideas or suggestions that they’d like to see from your website or company
  • Create an exclusive website only offer or promotional event geared at your most loyal customers.  For example, you could offer a discount on holiday shipping for purchases over $100.

Start Leveraging Social Media

If you haven’t already setup a Twitter account or a Facebook page, you should do it as soon as possible.  While it might be too late at this point (if you haven’t already established accounts) to setup, and get immediate impact in time for the holiday rush, you should go through the process of setting up your Facebook and Twitter accounts anyway so you can start building traction in this arena for the future.  Setting up these accounts is fairly straightforward, but there’s a process to building a Twitter following and a Facebook friends list, which is an art in and of itself.

Social media is an opportunity to build relationships and forge more meaningful dialogue with existing as well as prospective customers.  It shouldn’t be viewed as a means to shove your products and services down the throats of your friends and followers.  Businesses that use social media exclusively as a means to shout from the rooftops promoting their own products and services are missing the point.   Don’t be a shameless carnival barker with your social media accounts.

The most successful social media marketers use their accounts to share relevant, helpful information by providing links to other sites, tips, advice and recommendations, helping to build trust and authority in their respective niches.

More Tips: One suggestion that you can implement right away regardless of whether or not you have your own Facebook or Twitter accounts setup yet is to give your site visitors the ability to post their product “wish lists” to their Twitter or Facebook accounts directly from your site.  You should also encourage your customers to post their favorite products or recent purchases directly to their own Facebook or Twitter accounts.

Additional Resources for Preparing Your E-Commerce Site for the Holidays:

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