It’s Never Too Early: Preparing Now for the Most Wonderful Time of the Year in Online Retail – Part 1

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Okay, okay, so we might be a little premature in dawning our holiday apparel and singing Christmas carols…but as retailers, especially online retailers, it IS time to be in the thick of things when it comes to planning for the holiday season. In 2016, online sales closed at a record-breaking high in the US due to the holiday rush (up 17.8% from 2015!) and were a significant driving force for total retail sales to see continued growth for year’s end. The 2017 holiday season is projected to be similarly strong and this means that to maximize your revenues during the most profitable time of year, it is never too early to start preparing. In fact, if we take a look at Google Trends, we can see that people started looking for “Christmas Gifts” as early as August last year! Interestingly enough, the search trend for “Personalized Gifts” follows is very similar curve to the one for “Christmas Gifts.” This makes sense as people often opt for personalized calendars, photobooks, cards, and other items during this time. It’s the most wonderful time to be in the product personalization market, that’s for sure!

Santa Claus shopping online.More and more shoppers (even Santa!) are opting for the “comforts of home” shopping experience rather than being part of the foot traffic at traditional stores. Of course, this is a lot to smile about for web store owners as these last two months of the year are ideal for pushing new products, clearing old inventory and hitting those yearly targets. But, it also means that they have to work that much harder to ensure zero downtime and a continuously delightful shopping experience. Let’s take a look at some considerations your online store should already be tackling head-on…and if you’re not tackling them yet, there’s no time like the present!

Server Stability
Let’s start right at the base: if your servers can’t handle the increased web traffic during the holiday season, you’re likely going to miss out on a lot of potential revenues. There’s nothing worse for shoppers than slow or even interrupted service. Start by analyzing the scalability of your infrastructure and build a plan to optimize performance from there. Load-balancing is key so that no one server gets heavily hit, while the others remain underused. A good way to test out your system is to create a one-day exceptional promotion (with a very low price) to drive a spike in the number of orders. To get the best analysis, ensure that you have enough resources to monitor the performance throughout the day.

Payment methods
Adding more payment options can lead to spikes in conversion rates and revenue so this would be an excellent time to consider turning on different options in addition to accepting Credit Cards. For example, PayPal and Bitcoins are fairly easy to add to your payment process and can provide alternatives to those shoppers who prefer not to use their credit cards directly online. The more flexibility you can offer during the checkout process, the more money’s in the bag for your business!

Return and Exchange Policies
In order to be competitive during the holiday season, you might want to reassess some of your policies. Since many of the purchases are likely going to be gifts, it might make sense to extend the return/exchange period. It is important to remember that you cannot make EVERYONE happy; don’t change your policies to the point that they break down your already established processes. For example, you may not be able to provide extended return periods for those really early-bird shoppers who get started in September for Christmas; you may offer, instead, that all purchases made on or after Black Friday can be returned or exchanged until the mid-January. This gives ample time for gift-receivers to make up their minds to keep an item or go for something different.

Shipping and Printing Deadlines
Be aware of your fulfiller’s and shipping company’s cut-off dates so that you can clearly communicate them to your customers. We all know (and possibly even are) those last-minute shoppers who buy everything in a panic a week or days before the festivities. When a shopper is stressed, it is more likely that you could blow a fuse with them, that’s why managing their expectations should be a priority. It may be worth considering putting the shipping deadlines right on the product selection page and again during the checkout process. If you know the SLAs of your printers and shippers for different items, especially personalized items, we’d also recommend putting a detailed note in the product descriptions. If the shopper is purchasing an item outside of the dates where you can guarantee delivery for the holidays, indicate this in bold somewhere (like having a countdown in the website header), or better yet, as a pop-up window. Prompting customers to click ‘OK’ to indicate they understand that the order will not be delivered for the holidays puts the onus in their hands for taking the risk of ordering late. Never a bad idea to cover your bases in these situations…

Besides having deadlines figured out and informing your customers adequately about what they are, shipping can play a big part in how many orders successfully make it through the checkout process. In our merchandising eBook, we mentioned how the cost of shipping can make or break a shopper’s intent to purchase. If the shipping is too high, especially during the holidays when money seems to grow wings and fly out of pockets, the consumer will simply not buy from your business. This is a big component of high shopping-cart abandonment rates. According to UPS, 52% of users added items to a shopping cart just to qualify for free shipping. You can also offer other options; 83% of shoppers are willing to wait two extra days if the shipping is free. Not only is this great for shoppers who feel like they’ve won big by getting something for free, but also for your store as you have the chance to either grow your basket of revenues with each order or take some of the pressure off of processing orders fast during an already busy time. Don’t you just love win-win situations?

Let’s take a break here, for now, to digest the information thus far. This should form a good base to get started in order to do the behind-the-scenes work. Once all systems and processes are a go, you’re ready for the next step. If you want to discuss server scalability and load balancing, setting up eCommerce policies or finding the best fulfillers/shipping partners for your business in more detail, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us: or 1-877-779-2547.

Join us again next week for Part 2 of this blog, loaded with ideas on how to prepare your website from the merchandising and promotional perspective. Let’s make 2017’s festive season your most celebrated one yet!