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(Corrects the spelling of Alhan Keser's last name)
U.S. retail sales will increase 3.3 percent during the upcoming holiday shopping season compared with last year, according to a recent forecast from Chicago research company ShopperTrak. It’s likely a good chunk of that increase will come in online retail: Internet holiday sales were at a record $37.2 billion last year, up 15 percent from 2010, according to comScore (SCOR).
Holiday deals and discounts, especially free shipping offers, proved especially attractive last year. But what else can small retailers do to boost sales? First, get ready now: Hanukkah falls 11 days earlier than last year, so an early start to the season is expected. Here are 10 more things you can do before the holidays:
1. Go festive. It’s only September, but the superorganized are already making their lists. Get your website dressed up for those early birds, says Tallya Rabinovich, chief executive of ecommerce software provider IzzoNet.com. “Make some Special Holiday Offers banners or a Holiday Bestsellers section on your front page,” she advises, so customers don’t have to scour your site. Incorporating a holiday countdown clock on your home page instills a sense of urgency.
2. Think promos. “Free” will always be a powerful word, says Mark Valva, president of Morristown (N.J.) marketing agency Revolution Digital. “Last year we worked with a small cookie company, and one of their hottest sellers was a free, decorative holiday tin,” he says. “Couple free shipping with promotional discount codes and limited edition holiday products, and leverage social media properties to promote them.” Last year’s Free Shipping Day brought sales of $1.072 billion, comScore reports. Participate this year on Monday, Dec. 17.
3. Make things easy. Let your customers know how to contact you by telephone, e-mail, online chat, in person, or by mail. “It should be easy to leave the website to get direct contact with the company,” says Shep Hyken, a customer service expert at Shepard Presentations in St. Louis. Take a cue from brick-and-mortar retailers and offer extended holiday hours, staffing up to make sure you can handle customer service requests.
4. Engage Customers. Differentiate by piquing your customers’ interest: “Do you know why cashmere has been used in winter coats for 4,000 years? Why do you think professional dancers buy this $5.99 pair of socks? Curiosity is a key concept in buying,” says Andrew Sobel, author of Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others.
5. Speed up. Websites lose 10 percent of their audience for every second it takes them to load, says Alhan Keser, chief marketing officer at Blue Fountain Media in New York. A 3-second loading time is ideal; reduce image sizes, remove tracking codes, and tweak front-end coding to speed up your site. “It’s much better to go with simple and fast than complicated and slow,” he says.
6. Go mobile. Make sure your site is visible and functional on mobile phones and tablets. Highlight your telephone number and your physical address, if you have one, on your mobile website so shoppers looking you up can find your location quickly, Valva says. “It could be a real missed opportunity to convert a browser into a buyer if your website is not mobile-enabled.”
7. Remove barriers. More than 65 percent of online shoppers abandon purchases before checkout, according to this list compiled by Web researcher Baymard Institute. Look at your analytics and figure out where you are losing people, Kesser says. One major stumbling block is an account registration page; if you have one, remove it—or at least give buyers the option to make guest purchases. “People are tired of having to create another account and remember another password every time they try to buy something,” Keser says.
8. Use video. Combine video showcasing your products or services placed above the fold on your site with prominent calls to action, such as instructions for visitors to click to watch a video. Video encourages “holiday shoppers to be much more inclined to engage in your message and make a purchase,” says Kelly Ford, vice president for marketing at SundaySky, a New York video company.
9. Think global. An online market is not just domestic; accommodate international shoppers by getting good translations of your website copy as well as providing customer service support such as e-mail and chat in various languages. “Shopping cart interface, checkout information, terms and conditions, and return policies must all offer online shoppers a seamless, experience [in the language of the visitor] to prevent shopping-cart abandonment,” says Liz Elting, president and co-founder of TransPerfect, a provider of language translation services in New York.
10. Get feedback. Small retailers should also use the holiday season to measure customer satisfaction, says Sheri Petras, chief executive of business analytics company CFI Group in Ann Arbor, Mich. Give customers an incentive to fill out feedback surveys after they’ve placed orders and ask them to opt in to your newsletter or customer database. Measuring satisfaction will allow you to “better understand the experience your customers are looking for and [give you an] advantage next holiday season,” Petras says.