Tweaking Your Holiday eComm Strategy

Nov 10, 2004

Allen Bernard

If you are like most e-tailers, your ecommerce strategy and hardware infrastructure were locked and ready to go months ago.

Servers have been load-balanced, tested and optimized (or should be by this point), order fulfillment is in place and ready to ship, and your marketing strategy is set in stone ... well maybe not stone, since there are few things you can do to boost sales and retain customers during the short but frantic Christmas selling season.

To make the most (i.e. increase order size) of your current customers and retain the new customers that are bound to hit your site, promotions are your best bet, said Craig Stevenson, worldwide marketing manager for IBM WebSphere Commerce.

"Just like consumers in the store, if you put up a sign that says 'Sale' then people will flock and will buy because they think they're getting a good deal," he said. "That's what you want to be able to do online."

While this may be an obvious, tried and true retailing strategy, selling online offers you the advantage of watching, in almost real-time, what people are looking for through their searches and page views, agreed Patty Freeman Evans, retail analyst at JupiterResearch (which is also owned by the parent company of CIO Update, JupiterMedia).

Sifting through this information carefully will reveal if your idea of what is a "Hot Item" is the same as your customer's. If not, you can update your promotions on the fly to either increase or decrease (say, if you are out of this year's Cabbage Patch doll) the traffic associated with a certain item or group of items.

You can also use this opportunity to help move items that may be slow sellers by offering special package deals ("If you buy this you get this ... [insert item name here] ... for half off" kind of thing) or discount coupons that can be used online, in the store, or via a catalog call to customer service.


Now is a particularly good time to analyzing your search traffic, since most people do some research before they make a final buying decision. If your site offers the best deal, you will probably get the sale. Especially if you combine a sale item with, say, free shipping, which is turning out to be one of the most sought-after discounts an e-tailer can offer these days.

"What retailers should be doing now is going back and looking at the library that consumers are searching on and make sure they are presenting the best results," she said. "You can always tweak them; that is never a done deal. They should be looking at that all the time and even more now."


Another thing to avoid is returning an "Error" message if a search result comes up empty. Offer a list of other items or holiday specials. Change your error message wording to so that it doesn't leave the customer hanging trying to figure out what they did wrong. Lead the customer in another direction so they don't immediately click over to a competitor whose search capabilities may be more extensive.

Analyzing zero-return searches is also another good way to figure out what customers are looking for, said Evans. Timberland took this approach and cashed in when they discovered urbanites were constantly searching for "Steak and Cheese."

Knowing their customers were not looking for lunch, the company's marketing department started investigating this strange, recurring search request and discovered that the term was slang for a particular boot the company sells.

By adding this wording to the boot's search terms, the company was able to sell to a whole group of urbanites they otherwise would not have been able to serve online, she said.

"You should be watching the behavior on your site try to capture new trends of what's hot this very short season and promote them first," she said.

Yahoo!'s Christmas List

Rich Riley, Yahoo!'s executive responsible for helping Yahoo!'s thousands of small business e-tailers make the most of their online stores, offered up a laundry list of ideas that all e-tailers can use to boost sales this holiday season. Riley and his team assure CIO Update that these strategies work regardless of company size.

Create holiday category pages. Some products are more holiday-gift-ready than others. Put your best gift inventory together on category pages that make it easy for shoppers to find your holiday collections.

Add value with coupons, free shipping and other offers. To help move your holiday inventory, offer free shipping on orders over a certain dollar amount.

Publish gift lists, targeted to your core buying audience. Holiday shoppers who buy online are looking for convenience and speed. Give them what they want!

Update your product descriptions for search relevance. Think about how your customers might describe an item that you sell, and work these terms into an appealing description of the product.

Add seasonal elements to your site design, but don't change the essentials. Seasonal images, graphics, and colors are the online equivalent of holiday-specific window-dressing, and send customers the clear message that your site is a great place to shop for holiday items.

Enable gift certificates and promote them. If you havent enabled gift certificates, now is the time. Many customers prefer to give the "gift of choice", with an electronic gift certificate to your online store. Make sure your gift certificates are easy to find, featured on your homepage. Create a navigation link or button for your gift-certificate product page accessible from anywhere in your site.

Post your shipping times and policies. Can you serve last-minute shoppers? It pays to know your shipping partners' policies so you can deliver on your commitments to your customers. It's worth creating a page to explain likely shipping and processing times, and how many days you need to get a package there by Christmas.

Send holiday wishes and discounts. Use direct email or holiday newsletters to offer exclusive offers or discounts to current customers, encouraging them to revisit your site. Direct email includes the added benefit of making it very easy for existing customers to forward information about your business to other qualified leads.

Cross-selling and merchandising. Suggest complementary products at the point of purchase. For example, if a shopper has added a holiday bathrobe to their cart, you might suggest matching slippers as an additional purchase.


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