This year's holiday shopping season gets underway in earnest next month and, no doubt, most small and midsized businesses (SMBs) are already in the throes of preparing for the big event. When it comes to ecommerce strategies, a handful of priorities stand out for 2014.
Holiday Ecommerce Prep: Start Early
An effective holiday strategy doesn't just fall from the sky. "We find that you really need to have at least a quarter-over-quarter plan when it relates to coupons and discounts, because it takes time to figure those out—those promotions, the marketing message behind them—as well as designing those assets," says Clay Olivier, CEO of ecommerce platform provider Volusion.
It's an approach that dovetails with another strategy he believes is critical: focusing on repeat customers. Olivier suggests reaching out to your existing customer base before the holidays even start. "They want to get their business back in the customer's consideration before the holidays hit full force," Olivier says of small business owners.
Acquiring new customers is more difficult—and costly—than retaining existing customers, so put your efforts where they'll pay the biggest dividends. And the early bird is likely to take some additional worms this year, as the selling season between Thanksgiving and Christmas is only 26 days long.
Let's Talk about Mobile Commerce
Mobile consumers are a huge component of the holiday shopping season, and their prominence grows every year. But to make the most of those tablet-toting consumers, it's necessary to look at their buying behavior in more detail.
"Mobile is driving traffic, but it's not as good at converting traffic to sales," says Kevin North, president and CEO of Terapeak, an ecommerce market analytics provider. A report conducted by IBM bears that out. Sales conversion rates for Black Friday 2013 were a paltry 1.4 percent on smartphones and 4.25 percent on tablets. Considering those devices drove online site traffic at rates of 24.9 percent and 14.2 respectively, that's a gap SMBs must keep in mind.
North's theory is that shoppers do a lot of their product research using mobile devices, but "they're not following through with the sale, either because they don't have enough information to make a decision or because they're choosing to do their research on the smartphone or tablet, but end up making the purchase itself in a physical store."
One thing potentially hindering customers' ability—or inclination—to move from research to purchase via their mobile device is that many websites are still woefully lacking when it comes to the mobile experience. Elan Sherbill, blogger at ecommerce platform provider CleverBridge, says that, while the number of mobile shoppers grows, SMBs aren't keeping pace.
"They're serving up pages to mobile users on their smartphones, on their tablets, but they aren't mobile optimized. They haven't coded the page for a mobile screen, and there's going to be a lot of zooming and awkward typing," he says.
Building a mobile-friendly site means putting together responsive and easy-to-navigate pages. "It's not just about putting every element on the entire page onto the mobile page," he says. Instead, SMBs should focus on including the critical components of each page and making the experience easier for the consumer. Auto-populating fields for returning customers can also be helpful, as it reduces the amount of thumb typing that's required.
Mobile Commerce Resources
Opportunities for Faster Delivery Speed
If there's one thing the holiday shopping season reinforces, it's competition. And competing with huge retailers (no need to name names, we all know who they are) is a recurring challenge for small businesses. Delivery speed and shipping costs point really drive this point home.
Large companies naturally have tremendous buying power, giving them the ability to offer customers crazy-low rates and fast delivery. Olivier says that, with a little legwork, it is possible to compete with the big guys. "At the very entry level, offering overnight and two-day shipping is common sense," he says, adding that SMBs "can also shop around and look for providers that offer the lowest rates."
Your preferred shipper may not be the best deal, especially when its competitors are also fishing for holiday business. Beyond that, Olivier encourages small businesses to ensure customers know the deadlines for the various shipping options you offer, so everyone shares the right expectations. Few things can ruin a customer's experience like a gift that doesn't arrive on time.
There are other innovative ways that small businesses can boost their shipping prowess. Neil Patel, chief evangelist at analytics platform vendor KissMetrics, says it's actually possible to house materials with larger retailers.
"[Amazon] offers programs for small and medium-sized businesses, so you can take advantage of their fast shipping," he explains. Rather than burden your company with the kind of overhead it would take to rival these big organizations' storage and shipping programs, Patel says, "you can just house some of your inventory with them." The options available, and which large retail partners are willing to participate, will vary by industry and category, but it's a solution that could work well for some smaller business operators.
Small Business Shipping Resources
Put Your Small Business Data to Work
Small business owners should double down on their data capture and analysis efforts at this time of year. It's a practice that will let them make the most of every site visitor, and to develop the most compelling offers for prospective and returning customers.
"The big thing is to find out what people want," Patel says. He suggests figuring out the basics first, asking "What's your most popular item?" If you've run promos in the past—free shipping, buy-one-get-one, etc.—look at what customers purchased and go from there.
"If the data shows that free shipping works, make sure you offer that during the holiday season. If the data shows that people like to buy X, Y and Z product, then showcase X, Y and Z product to everyone." The key is to start with the simple stuff, he says. Don't launch into something so complex you either can't make it work, or you can't finish it before your site's traffic hits its holiday peak.
The right data isn't just customer-focused, though. North says small businesses should also have a deep understanding of current market pressures and what they do better than their competitors.
"We start off with the metrics around what to source, what's trending, what is the next big thing, and where do I get it," says North. He then cautions, "The other metric you should look at is market saturation." Examining your competitors' metrics will give you a leg up on developing a product selection and price point that's both attractive to consumers and profitable for you. This strategy is important for both e-tailers and brick-and-mortar SMBs alike.
Small Business Data Resources
Depending on where you're advertising and which metrics are most valuable to you, the analytics available through Google and Facebook (click on "Insights" at the top of your SMB's page) are both powerful and popular.
Don’t Forget Customer Service
A small business may be able to compete on price and delivery speed, but if it drops the ball when it comes to excellent service it will likely miss out on a piece or two of the holiday shopping pie. "One critical component is your customer service. You need to get them ready for an increase in traffic and an increase in orders," Sherbill stresses.
Traffic jumps significantly in November and December, and now is the time to prepare for it. "That means staffing, anticipating call volume and anticipating how many emails you're going to get," Sherbill says.
It also means training employees on the different promotions customers receive, so there's no confusion over what's available. The holidays are already stressful for shoppers. There's no reason to dampen their experience with your brand by falling short on the service side. Ensuring servers and phone lines are able to manage the spike in traffic will also go a long way toward helping to make each customer's experience pleasant and efficient.
Customer Service Resources
Julie Knudson is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in technology magazines including BizTech, Processor, and For The Record. She has covered technology issues for publications in other industries, from foodservice to insurance, and she also writes a recurring column in Integrated Systems Contractor magazine.
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