Holiday watch: Connecting with consumers amidst Black Friday crowds

The big weekend is almost here — Thanksgiving, Black Friday and CyberMonday are all now just days away. The first and biggest big red-letter days on the holiday shopping calendar may well set the tone for the rest of the season to come.

Merchants have cause to feel optimistic. The recently-released forecast from industry researcher Forrester estimates that online holiday sales will total $59.5 billion, growing by a robust 15 percent compared with 2010 – higher than Kantar Research’s earlier growth estimate of 13.5%.

One of Forrester’s top predictions: “Key dates are getting bigger.” According to the report, increased activity at U.S. ports and the aggressive Black November/Black Friday promotions that have been in circulation all month, combined with traffic trends from 2010, indicate merchants should do all they can to maximize opportunities in the coming days.

A Forrester graph using 2010 and 2009 data from Experian Hitwise shows the rapid acceleration of Black Friday-related search terms, beginning in mid-October.

Data on Black Friday from Forrester Research

Merchants are certainly getting in the game, with many sites now advertising Black November deals or Black Friday “sneak peeks”, Chad White’s Retail Email blog has been tracking email volume to date, and he reports retailers are now sending an average of 3.6 messages per week in the runup to the big weekend, outpacing last year. And as of October’s end, holiday-related content and promotions have surged.

Chart from the Retail Email blog on email volume

 

Chart from the Retail Email Blog about holiday email content

At the same time, consumer sentiment seems mixed when it comes to Black Friday. Some major stores will open bricks-and-mortar locations and offer deals on Thanksgiving Day itself, or at midnight on Black Friday — a move that has drawn criticism from some shoppers, according to various media reports. The New York Times reports that shoppers don’t relish the idea of forgoing Thanksgiving gatherings to stand in line for deals, and some object to companies forcing employees to work on what many perceive as a sacred day for family (and football).

Online, merchants can sidestep this thorny issue — but they may face a challenge in discount overload. After all, shoppers are already primed not only by a month of Black November messaging, but by the constant expectation of discounts engendered by daily deal sites and merchants’ weekly or daily featured product discounts. A Washington Post blogger has even predicted the demise of Black Friday due to such such year-round competition.

Meantime, though, most merchants are planning blowout offers for the coming weekend — and to beat discount fatigue, it’s imperative to stand out in the crowd. To elevate your Black Friday game, enact these last-minute tweaks:

 

  • Use prominent global positioning to highlight specials.With any page on your eCommerce site a potential landing page from a search engine or direct link, be sure that Black Friday/CyberMonday deals are prominently positioned throughout the eCommerce site — as MarketLive merchant Design Toscano does for a November sale on garden statues. The banner is positioned at the top of the center content area on every page, making it impossible to miss.

Example of global promotion from MarketLive merchant Design Toscano

 

  •  Emphasize crowd-free convenience.Message directly to shoppers balking at the prospect of Thanksgiving and Black Friday lines by stressing the convenience and ease of online shopping. MarketLive’s 2011 Consumer Shopping Survey found that “saving time” resonated with 77% of consumers as a motivator for shopping online — second only to “saving money” at 79%. “Avoid the crowds at the mall” was another top incentive, chosen by 73% of consumers.

 

  • Follow through with service.To fulfill customer expectations of online convenience, elevate customer service contact information, clearly message shipping and delivery timelines and promote return and exchange policies. Land’s End promotes customer service with a graphic promoting easy returns and other services in the left-hand column beneath secondary navigation — and also  ensures key service information is close to hand throughout the site with a global header that’s anchored to the bottom of the browser window as shoppers scroll. The footer includes links to customer service contact information and to crucial shipping information.

Example of customer service promotion from Lands End

So, are you ready for Black Friday? How do you predict sales will fare?

Google+ for Business: Wait or Jump?

It’s been 10 days now since Google+ announced the launch of its Pages for Business. As discussed in a prior post, Google’s social network initially launched without support for companies – a sought-after feature offered by the search giant’s biggest rival in the social space, Facebook.

Now that the Pages program has launched, though, the reaction is decidedly mixed. Supporters note that Google+ offers brands the ability to segment followers using its “Circles” feature and message to them differently. Google+ starts off with circles called “Customers”, “VIPs” and “Team Members,” but merchants can create their own custom circles according to their business model and add followers to more than one circle at a time. For example, this brand-new winery page can add future followers to circles for customers, for subscribers to its loyalty wine club program, and to fans of red or white wines.

example of Google+ circles used for a business Additionally, as predicted, the platform is indeed on track to integrate with Google’s other applications and services, starting most notably with search. Google users who type a “+” before a brand name in the search box will be routed directly to that brands Google+ page – a more direct route than searching a brand name plus “Facebook” and clicking on the correct link (which is not always the top result).

The Wired Enterprise blog on Wired News opined that the marketing power of these allied services will eventually trump other social networks:

“With a broad array of services like search and Gmail and Chrome and Android, Google offers tools that are fundamental to the online lives of so many people — and these can be tied to Google+. As Google+ evolves, Google will have the means to promote its social network — and the branded Pages within it — in ways that Facebook or Twitter cannot.”

But for detractors, the key word is “eventually.” Social media watchers who report being less than enthralled with the Google+ for Business rollout claim the service offers little in the way of innovative features — even though, as a latecomer to the game, Google has had more time to size up the market.

Among the features Google+ lacks are customizable (vanity) URLs, the ability to assign more than one administrator to a page, and support for interactive tools such as quizzes and polls – not to mention transactions. As ZDNet’s Social Business blogger put it,

“It’s evident (once again), that you have a company with amazing technology, scientists and engineers who even after years of seeing how businesses are using Facebook, still either left out, or chose not to create, almost all of the crucial components used by marketers to engage and build their communities.”

Of the merchants who’ve jumped onto Google+, some are using the platform to mimic their Facebook presence, with similar posts and content. For example, here’s the Wall of H&M’s Facebook page:

H&M's Facebook WallAnd here are the brand’s Google+ Posts:

H&M's Google+ page

Still others have established a foothold on Google+, but have yet to dive in with frequent posts. Three days after launch, luxury brand Piaget’s Google+ page featured a single post welcoming new users. In the same timeframe, the brand’s Facebook page featured three posts.

Piaget's Google+ post

In short, with the rollout of Google+ for Business occurring in the midst of the peak holiday season, many merchants are likely to put this on the to-do list for 2012 rather than leaping on board now. But you should consider launching a Google+ page sooner if:

  • Your audience fits the Google+ profile. With Google+ claiming 40 million followers to Facebook’s 800 million, it’s a less crowded venue for connecting with early-adopter technology fans. As the Wired column put it, “At this point, Google+ Pages are where businesses interact with web denizens on the cutting edge of net technology, and Facebook is where you interact with everyone else.”
  • You face stiff competition from a broad field of competitors. Because Google+ is less crowded, it offers brands a better opportunity to stand out — and the direct search integration with Google can give your brand a boost.

For more information on Google+ pages, check out:

What do you think of Goole+ pages? Do you plan to launch one soon?

Holiday Watch: Driving email signups before Black Friday

As the holiday season revs up, retailers are spreading the holiday cheer across more customer touchpoints than ever – from mobile devices to shopping affiliates, social sites and beyond. But in all the flurry, it’s important not to overlook the workhorse of online holiday marketing — email.

According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, fully 92% of U.S. online adults use email, and 61% use it daily. Daily usage is 41% higher than for social media sites, which less than half of consumers check daily (43%).

And consumers who sign up for information from retailers are willing to receive updates frequently — with more than one in five saying they’d like updates twice a week or more and 39% saying they’d like weekly emails, according to data from the MarketLive 2011 Consumer Shopping Survey.

Chart on email frequency from the 2011 MarketLive Consumer Shopping Survey

With the prospect of delivering frequent offers to holiday shoppers’ inboxes in mind, merchants should use this early holiday shopping period to encourage consumers to subscribe to email updates. A few effective tactics:

Promote a significant benefit for subscribers. MarketLive client Gaiam has placed a prominent banner on its home page promoting free shipping for new subscribers on any purchase above a $75 threshold through Dec. 31, in tandem with a welcome offer of 15% off the next purchase. Existing subscribers received notification of the offer as well, with the text positioning the benefit as an exclusive “thank you gift” for being a loyal subscriber.

Free shipping offer for new email signups from Gaiam

Gaiam email promoting free shipping

Promise early notice of peak shopping-day deals. With Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Free Shipping Day all still to come, merchants can promise email subscribers early access to deals, alerts about special in-store promotions and more. Target has given its email signup link a prominent spot in the global header and decorated it for the holidays, promising shoppers an exclusive sneak peek at Black Friday deals.

Email signup link from Target

In a fun twist, shoppers who sign up can add their name and avatar to the “virtual line” gathering outside a virtual store for Black Friday, and add a personal note about what they’re wishing for.

Holiday feature from Target

Tie email to “flash sale”-style discounts on individual items. Emulating “flash sale” sites that offer deep discounts on a single item, many merchants now offer a weekly sale product or web-only featured deal. Now is the time to highlight this opportunity prominently, with text and graphics that remind shoppers they can receive a significant discount on gift items. Hunting and fishing outfitter Bass Pro Shops givess its “Catch of the Week” a a large amount of home page real estate — even after it’s sold out. Shoppers are encouraged to sign up for email alerts to ensure they don’t miss out on the next offer.

Weekly deal example with email signup offer from Bass Pro Shops

Adhere to year-round established best practices. Now is not the time to skimp on clear and comprehensive signup disclosures. On the signup page, clearly state what kinds of deals and information they’ll receive, and feature prominently  the privacy reassurance shoppers seek to ensure they won’t receive a deluge of spam. L.L. Bean covers all the bases on its signup page, offering a preview peek at typical emails subscribers receive, as well as a privacy statement at the bottom of the form and the opportunity for subscribers to self-segment so they receive the most relevant messaging.

Email signup example from L.L. Bean

What are you doing to promote email subscriptions this holiday season? Are you seeing a jump in new signups?

Holiday watch: Black November deals that don’t break the bank

What a difference! Back in the third week of October, when we surveyed sites in conjunction with the release of the MarketLive 2011 Consumer Shopping Survey, we found that just 1 in 4 merchants had launched an early holiday campaign.

But now,  as the second week of November draws to a close, Internet Retailer reports that many sites are offering not only holiday gift guides and shopping previews — but also deep discounts. Whereas in the past, bargains typically debuted on ‘Black Friday’ — the day after Thanksgiving — now merchants are offering discounts throughout the month, spawning the moniker ‘Black November.’

By offering early discounts, merchants hope to drive shoppers to commit to holiday purchases rather than waiting until the last minute — and, of course, early-season buyers can be enticed to return for additional purchases later in the season.

But it’s a thin line to walk. Offering bargains now could backfire, inspiring shoppers not to buy now, but to hold out for even more drastic deals later. In other words, by promoting discounts early, are merchants setting the bar low — and will shoppers expect it to drop lower?

The savvy solution to this challenge is to focus early discounts tightly — and use them to drive sales of regularly-priced items. Here’s a quick survey of deals leading merchants are offering:

Free or discounted items with purchase.
Rather than slashing prices on key gift items, merchants are offering free companion items with purchase, or discounts on other products. This tactic not only maintains price margins for popular gifts, but also boosts convenience for shoppers, who can cross more items off their lists with a single purchase. Best Buy is offering a free camera bag and memory cards when shoppers purchase cameras.

Example of holiday discount from Best Buy

Rewards for participation.
The early holiday season is an ideal time to encourage shoppers to connect with brands through multiple touchpoints, and merchants are offering discounts that reward shoppers who join social networks and sign up for email updates. This promotion is a gift that keeps on giving for merchants, who boost followers and subscribers, as well as for shoppers, who get a discount. Lowe’s promises shoppers who “like” the brand on Facebook a sneak peek at Black Friday deals, along with a chance to win featured items or gift cards.

Example of holiday offer from Lowe's

MarketLive merchant Gaiam sent email subscribers an invitation to pick their favorite product from among Gaiam’s name-brand favorites and receive a $10 discount with free shipping. The offer is another win-win: shoppers not only get a price cut, but they’re also crowd-sourcing which products (presumably) will feature in later holiday discount offers.

Example of holiday offer from MarketLive merchant Gaiam

Buy more, save more.
Merchants are offering to subtract a percentage or dollar amount off, depending on how much shoppers spend. Shoppers are encouraged to commit to purchases now, while receiving an instant price break — and merchants get to apply the discount across the total purchase price, rather than marking down individual items. In this 2010 example, King Arthur Flour offers tiered discounts of 10, 15 or 20 percent depending on purchase total.

Example of 2010 holiday offer from King Arthur Flour

Merchants are also offering buyers discounts on future purchases. While this tactic lacks the immediacy of an instant price break, the right combination of price and reward can motivate shoppers to purchase now. For example, Victoria’s Secret’s Secret Rewards program gives shoppers who buy just $10 of merchandise now the opportunity to win a reward card worth up to $500 — a potentially huge payoff for a small investment. The promotion is timed to encourage repeat holiday purchases, with reward cards being given through the end of November and redeemable through Dec. 21.

Holiday offer example from Victoria's Secret
Tight timing.
Merchants who offer sweeping discounts are doing so with strict time limits built in — sometimes expiring within just a few hours. This tactic encourages shoppers to buy immediately, before the ticking clock runs out, as well as limiting the potential revenue impact of costly offers for merchants. MarketLive merchant Cuddledown offered free shipping sitewide with no threshold for three days only. Not only is the time limit tight, encouraging shoppers to purchase now, but the cheeky messaging suggesting the deal is only available because the company president is away indicates that it might not be offered again — further incentive to buy now.

Holiday offer example from MarketLive merchant Cuddledown

For more holiday tips, be sure to download MarketLive’s 2011 Merchant Guide to Maximizing Holiday Sales . Meantime, which ‘Black November’ deals have caught your eye, and why?

Elevate Existing Video to Add Holiday Bling

By now, your site may be on “lockdown” for the holidays, with no major new features or functionality set to debut until early 2012. But that doesn’t mean you’re out of options for adding flair to existing content — and a particularly effective way to do so is with video.

Online video usage continues to soar, with ComScore estimating that a staggering  85.3% of U.S. online consumers watched a video on the Internet in September of 2011. Merchants have responded to this behavior by offering more and more video, with 63.2% of merchants in the 2011 Internet Retailer 500 reporting that they have a presence on the social video site YouTube — a 17% jump compared with the 2010 Internet Retailer 500.

While the peak holiday season is not the time to produce new videos, merchants with footage already in hand can do more to make the most of it — and all sellers can elevate their game by soliciting user-generated video content.

As this graphic from industry researcher Forrester shows, merchants can leverage a bevy of existing content – from existing TV campaigns to manufacturer-supplied videos – to boost a brand’s video presence.

Chart from Forrester showing how to use video across channelsForrester recommends a tiered approach, using social networks to create and increase awareness and the eCommerce site to spur purchasing. But within the eCommerce site alone, there are still more ways to maximize video visibility. Consider these updates of tried-and-true eCommerce concepts:

The tried-and-true feature: Collections
The video version: Static and video content merge beyond the product detail page

For the most part, until now merchants have focused on adding video to product detail pages, as a way to deepen product content. Footage typically includes a demonstration of how to use or assemble the product and/or an overview of features and benefits.

But but by featuring and spotlighting product videos more broadly throughout the eCommerce site, merchants can maximize the bang for their video investment buck — and engage shoppers at every point along the path to purchase with compelling content. For example, Armani Exchange offers a series of videos on the category page for its Denim Shop for women.

Example from Armani Exchange of using video on category page

The videos include how-to information such as measuring for a perfect fit and a “How to Wear It” guide that lets viewers “shop this video.” Links to featured items are embedded on the screen, both via the filmstrip presentation below the video window and within the footage itself, using pulsing blue targets shoppers can click to view product details. It’s an updated version of the static  “collections” of yore.

Example of video collection from Armani Exchange

While creating such an elaborate display may not be feasible now in time for the holiday rush, the general concept — mixing static and video content in new locations — is within reach. Consider

  • using a category page fill slot for video related to the other merchandising on the page
  • adding an icon or flag to search results and index pages to indicate a product has a video associated with it
  • featuring product video on the home page in conjunction with a spotlight offer

The tried-and-true feature: Buying guides
The video version: A collection of videos starring expert staff

Especially during the holidays, shoppers are looking for guidance on gift ideas — giving merchants an opportunity to build brand credibility by showcasing staff expertise. These videos needn’t be elaborate, and could address everything from staff gift picks to purchase considerations for big-ticket items. Outdoor retailer REI presents expert advice videos on its winter gear category page, with a pop-up display that features a staff member wearing a store uniform (the green vest) explaining technology and purchase considerations.

Video example from REI

Video example from REI

If you have a substantial collection of how-to and expert advice videos, consider taking it a step further and aggregating them all in a separate section of the eCommerce site — or even on a separate microsite, as Best Buy does with its “On Best Buy” channel. Videos on picking the right electronics, as well as video game and movie previews, are presented on a dedicated microsite, with links back to the main BestBuy.com site.

Video example from Best Buy

The tried-and-true feature: Customer reviews
The video version: Video customer reviews

Nearly one in three merchants use video customer reviews, with another 25% planning to deploy them in 2011-2012, according to a June report from Forrester. And with good reason: not only can they attract input from shoppers who prefer to record video instead of typing out their opinions, but they provide merchants with compelling product content. Like static customer reviews, video reviews let shoppers focus on product features and highlights that matter most to them — lending credibility to product benefits like no marketing copy can.

To incorporate customer video reviews, make the process highly visible, quick and easy. Beauty manufacturer Get Super embeds customer product reviews into the main image space on the product detail page — and includes a link to “Record Your Product Review” right beneath that window, making it quick for customers with a webcam installed to shoot and upload footage on the spot.

Video best practices from Get Super

How are you using video to drive engagement and sales this holiday season, and do you see video as a top priority for 2012?

Why to keep an eye on tablet trends

Despite the hype surrounding iPads and other tablet devices, few consumers own them, and those who don’t are skeptical about needing one. But if the tablet shopping audience is relatively small, it packs a powerful punch.

Industry researcher Forrester found that just 9% of U.S. consumers own an iPad or other tablet device.  The large majority of those owners –  7% of consumers – also have a smartphone, making their tablet devices somewhat redundant.

Furthermore, 74% of consumers say they don’t plan to buy a tablet any time soon. The top reason? For a majority of respondents, tablets were perceived as an inessential luxury, with 64% saying “I don’t think it’s something I need.” Budget was also a primary consideration, with 24% of consumers deeming tablets too pricey right now.

But this doesn’t mean tablets hold little promise for eCommerce merchants. In fact, Forrester and other sutdies have found that, like other early technology adopters, tablet users are a significant force when it comes to shopping.

For starts, the demographic profile of tablet owners is skewed toward more affluent, educated consumers. According to the Pew Research Center, more than half of tablet owners are college-educated, have family incomes of more than $75,000, and are employed full-time — higher than the national average. The highest percentage of tablet owners are 30 to 49 years old — a disproportionate percentage compared to the overall populace.

Demographic statistics on tablet owners from Pew

Not only do tablet owners have the means to buy online — they are much more apt to use their devices to do so. According to Forrestrer, only 13% of smartphone users have used the devices to make purchases — but a whopping 47% of tablet owners have used them to shop and buy items, with another 13% using them for browsing.

The majority of tablet owners in all age groups say shopping on the devices is easier than on smartphones — and many say tablets are as easy to use as PCs for shopping. Comfort with tablets is especially high among Gen X users, with 72% saying they prefer the tablet to a smartphone for shopping and 62% saying tablets are as easy to use as a PC.

Data from Forrester on perceived ease of tablet use for shopping

This willingness to shop on tablets translates into sales. According to Ipsos, tablet ownership leads to increased mobile purchasing overall, with “dual owners” of both smartphones and tablets making an average of 18.3 mobile purchases in the past 12 months, compared with 10.4 purchases for owners of smartphones alone. Of those dual owners, 28% report increased spending via mobile purchases — suggesting the larger screen format makes browsing for products a more enticing experience.

Indeed, the E-Tailing Group found that compared with smartphone buyers, tablet shoppers were 20% more likely to be very or somewhat satisfied with the shopping experience, and nearly 70% reported that the shopping experience on their tablets was better than on smartphones.

Data from the E-Tailing Group on satsifaction with shopping experience on tablets vs. smartphones

Given the data, how should merchants cater to tablet shoppers – and to what extent? While for most, tablet shoppers may remain a long-term rather than immediate priority, the peak holiday season is a golden opportunity to gather data that can guide your 2012 strategy. To watch in particular:

  • Mobile traffic and sales by device. If your audience relies on tablets to browse and purchase this holiday season and beyond, you have a strong motivation to begin tailoring content to tablet shoppers.
  • Full-price and luxury buyers. While the holiday season may attract more than a fair share of bargain hunters, if your customers are willing to buy items at full price, or prioritize buying the newest and hottest items, then they may be in the tablet demographic. And luxury merchants should definitely put tablet implementation on the to-do list for 2012; the “early adopters” tablet shoppers represent are an ideal target.
  • Usage and ROI of immersive shopping environments. If interactive dressing rooms, customizable product builders and image-rich displays are big sales drivers for your eCommerce site, translating those experiences onto tablets will be easier than squeezing them onto smartphone screens. Different tablets offer varying levels of integration with Flash, so begin studying up now on how best to replicate features in 2012.

What proportion of your traffic and sales comes from tablets, and how are you catering to tablet shoppers?