MarketLive Performance Index: Holiday sales growth accelerates, with help from social (yes, social!)

With the holiday shopping season entering the home stretch, merchants are on track to achieve solid sales growth. While much media hand-wringing ensued following smaller-than-anticipated increases in revenue on Thanksgiving weekend, results from the MarketLive Performance Index show that once off the starting block, merchants are seeing increased sales growth rates as the season progresses.

For the week that included “Green Monday,” Dec. 8, MarketLive merchants achieved a year-over-year revenue growth rate of 11.5% — especially impressive given that visits grew just 8.6%. With the conversion rate trailing last year’s by more than 5% and abandonment up 6.7%, the revenue growth is likely thanks to merchants holding the line on pricing — and, indeed, average order size for the week was up 4.6% year over year.

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Combined totals for the season to date follow the same trend, with revenue up 9.4% on increased visits of 13.5% and average order values averaging 4.1% higher than last year.

 

The increased average order size is especially impressive given the continuing downward price pressure exerted by the largest online mass merchants. The growth in average order value demonstrates that MarketLive merchants are presenting unique finds, relevant promotions for their target audience and stellar service that trump bargain-basement pricing.

In this light, the potential value of social media becomes clear, as it connects merchants with an audience predisposed to be receptive to their products and offers. Although overall, the percentage of visits and revenue directly attributable to social media remains small, a select group of MarketLive merchants have capitalized on the opportunity social media affords to drive a significant percentage of sales and visits from social networking sites.

For the season to date, the merchants with the 15 highest sales figures attributed to social media achieved average social media revenue gains of 212.31% and average social traffic gains of 210.12% year over year — significantly higher than the Index as a whole, which saw gains of 135.7% for social revenue and 113.1% for social traffic. Some individual sites among the top 15 are seeing more than 20% of their traffic and 10% of their revenues originating from social media.

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To maximize social impact in the remaining days of the holiday season — and in the year to come — merchants should:

Display an array of targeted discounts. Merchants can avoid decimating their margins by judiciously targeting discounts to focus on top gift categories, and then promote them socially using imagery that displays the full array of possibilities on offer. MarketLive merchant The Cartoon Network Shop employed this strategy for its extended Cyber Monday sale, offering an array of discounts on top items that were promoted via its Facebook page with a large image showing an assortment of products.

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Showcase social recommendations. Social media is a rich source of word-of-mouth recommendations, and merchants should capitalize on them by boosting visibility of endorsements and reviews. Developing last-minute campaigns focusing on top-reviewed products is one way to go, but merchants should also boost visibility within social media itself using the “share”, “retweet” and other like functions. MarketLive merchant Neutrogena actively retweets posts featuring product recommendations. Not all of them are gift-related — such as a post from BeautyBlitz promoting the opportunity to win makeup removal wipes, which “every girl needs … near her bed,” the post points out, especially during the busy holiday social season. Also retweeted by Neutrogena: mentions in major media outlets such as InStyle, whose feature on celebrity gift picks lends authority to the brand.

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Watch for our final wrapup of holiday results after the New Year, along with 2015 trendwatching and more.

MarketLive Performance Index: Mobile sales zoom as holiday season peaks

As the peak holiday period passes the midpoint, the latest data from the MarketLive Performance Index shows that merchants are continuing to achieve year-over-year revenue gains — with the biggest spoils going to those brands who’ve optimized their mobile experiences.

In the week that started with CyberMonday, shoppers flocked to mobile devices to browse deals and make purchases. A whopping 43% of all online traffic was on mobile devices, and those visits generated 24% of total online revenues. While tablet revenues increased year-over-year by an impressive 42%, smartphone revenue growth was even more impressive, at 107%, accounting for $1 out of every $10 spent online.

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Overall, seasonal growth remains steady, with merchants seeing revenue gains of more than 9% on increased traffic of more than 18%. But while the add-to-cart rate is showing a modest year-over-year increase of 1.3%, the conversion rate has slipped by two-tenths of a percentage point, for a drop of 5%.

The gap suggests that merchants are missing the opportunity to win sales from highly-qualified shoppers who’ve engaged with the site, identified relevant products, and gone so far as to place them in the cart.

Usage of the cart to to research total order costs is likely partly to blame; past research suggests that more than half of shoppers add items to the cart with no intention of buying in the first place, and a similar percentage use the cart to stash items for further perusal later — an activity that has doubtless spiked as shoppers research on phones and complete purchases on desktop or laptop computers, or in stores.

But with the explosive growth in mobile visits and sales, mobile usage is likely contributing to the conversion gap in another way as well — thanks to checkout experiences that are cumbersome on smaller touchscreens. Indeed, half of online consumers say “easier checkout” would spur them to buy more via mobile devices, while a third specifically cited one-click checkout, according to the 2014 MarketLive Consumer Shopping Survey.

While it’s far too late to streamline checkout processes for this year’s peak season, merchants whose holiday mobile numbers are lackluster so far may be able to institute small changes that have big potential to smooth the mobile path to purchase — and salvage sales. Worth considering:

Prominent customer service messaging. The mobile checkout process should include a prominent link to customer service throughout, including a live chat option and preferably with click-to-call functionality built in.  Merchants who don’t already display that information should investigate whether they can adjust their checkout templates.

Promotion of account creation and wish lists. Another way to combat cart abandonment is to offer viable alternatives for researchers who wish to save items for later access across touchpoints. Merchants should consider promoting wish list and account creation, using prominent messaging in the cart, in email campaigns and on social media to get the message across.

MarketLive merchant The Room Place encourages mobile users to save cart contents with a prominent button. Shoppers who click the link are invited to create an account with a streamlined form that doesn’t require entering delivery or billing addresses or other extraneous data.

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Watch for more holiday results updates through Christmas and a season-end wrap-up after the New Year.

Performance Index: Cyber Monday gains cap successful holiday kickoff weekend

The results are in for the final salvo of the 2014 Thanksgiving weekend and the results confirm that merchants are off to a strong start — even as consumers appeared to experience promotion fatigue, slowing Cyber Monday revenue gains.

Merchants in the MarketLive Performance Index achieved year-over-year sales growth of 7.3% for CyberMonday, driven by an increase in traffic of more than 20% and an increase in average order value of more than 4%. Mobile saw especially strong revenue gains, with sales from mobile devices up 141%.

Both comScore and Adobe reported double-digit eCommerce revenue gains for CyberMonday — but, tellingly, Adobe separated results for the industry’s top 25 retailers, who each generated more than $30 million on Cyber Monday alone, from smaller merchants generating $2 million or less that day. Adobe’s data found that the mega-merchants achieved 25% growth on Cyber Monday, while the smaller merchants saw 5% year-over-year sales gains.

That widening gulf presents a unique challenge for small- to mid-sized merchants. Not only must they contend with the deep discounting strategies of the online mass merchants who are dominating market share, but they must also find ways to stand out among the torrent of promotions offered by those retailers, whose reach is often deep and wide.

One approach is to manifest brand identity consistently across touchpoints by presenting products and offers that resonate deeply with the target audience. Among the ways to do so:

  • Offer discounts that support brand identity. Small-to-mid-sized merchants can’t match the deep discounting strategies of mass merchants — so instead, they should use discounts as a means to demonstrate their knowledge of the needs and priorities of their target audience. That can mean offering free shipping or a discount on a particular category of products, or gift-with-purchase incentives that strike a chord.
  • Put the spotlight on exclusive products. 43% of shoppers say they’d pay full price for a holiday gift that perfectly matches the recipient, and 37% say they’d pay full price for hard-to-find items, according to the 2014 MarketLive Consumer Shopping Survey. Merchants should emphasize unique finds and exclusive sets.
  • Roll out the customer service red carpet. Merchants should strive to provide personal service on a level the big mass merchants can’t match — and to market their customer service offerings as they would a valuable product. MarketLive merchant Title Nine heightens customer service visibility on the all-important shopping cart page with an invitation to engage in live chat and a concise description of the brand’s product guarantee.

cybermonday_brandbuildserviceFor more Cyber Monday and Thanksgiving weekend details, read the full MarketLive press release. And stay tuned for further holiday results next week.

Performance Index: MarketLive merchants see strong Black Friday gains, with mobile leading the way

The numbers are in for Black Friday weekend, and amidst slumping overall sales eCommerce has once again proved a bright spot. Merchants in the MarketLive Performance Index achieved year-over-year revenue gains of 16.2% during the four-day Thanksgiving weekend.

That performance trumps the flat online sales growth reported by the National Retail Federation and the 9.48% gain reported by IBM. At the same time, the growth rate for Thanksgiving and Black Friday was slower than in previous years, suggesting that shoppers visiting MarketLive merchant sites weren’t immune to promotions fatigue — or perhaps they expect the near-constant drumbeat of specials to continue, and are holding out for even better deals.

“We coached our customers and cautioned the industry that pre-empting Black Friday with early discounts is not healthy,” said Ken Burke, MarketLive founder and CEO. “This year saw an unprecedented number of retailers ‘jumping the gun’ on holiday sales and discounts which drove pre-Thanksgiving sales.”

Mobile sales jumped by more than 50%, with close to 30% of revenues originating from a mobile device. MarketLive merchants saw fully half of their visits coming from mobile devices, raising the prospect of shoppers on the go using their devices purely for research versus purchasing, and thereby causing key metrics to slump. Cart abandonment rates did, indeed, increase over the holiday weekend compared with 2013. But conversion rates and average order size held steady or increased, suggesting that merchants have improved their mobile experiences to meet the increased potential for sales.

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The Index and industry results demonstrate that merchants will have to work hard for the remainder of the season if their offers are to stand from the crowd of promotions. Among the tactics to consider:

  • Go for quality vs. quantity with email. As we discussed in one of our recent holiday tips, merchants should aim for maximum relevance when designing email campaigns, and should avoid sending multiple emails per day unless deals really are changing that rapidly. One merchant who shall remain nameless sent five nearly-identical Cyber Monday messages all containing the same content, with only the Subject: line changing — a sure-fire way to irritate consumers and guarantee that future messages will be summarily dismissed.
  • Use social to up visibility of promotions — and monitor their reception. Merchants should go beyond a single status-update post to Facebook and Twitter and find innovative ways to showcase deals via social media. MarketLive merchant Marc Jacobs Beauty promoted its “Blaquer Friday” deals across a range of social networking sites, including Google Plus and Instagram, and even devised a hashtag to increase visibility. And it’s important not to “set it and forget it” when it comes to sharing promotions socially. When a follower complained that exclusive gift packs were sold out by the Saturday after Thanksgiving, a  Marc Jacobs Beauty representative responded within an hour to reassure followers that inventory was still available.

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For more, view the official MarketLive Black Friday press release. And watch for Cyber Monday results and analysis coming momentarily, with weekly updates to continue through Christmas.

Holiday tip #12: Showcase giving to boost sales

Doing good can help merchants do well. By showcasing holiday charitable initiatives, brands can strengthen their identities and create positive connections with shoppers.

The facts

Demonstration of a purpose beyond making a profit is increasingly important to consumers. As of 2012, 53% of shoppers said that if price and product quality are equal, social purpose is the most important factor when evaluating a brand — a 26% increase since 2008, according to the Edelman Goodpurpose Study.

Furthermore, good works translate into more word of mouth promotion, with 72% of consumers saying they would recommend a brand that supports a good cause over one that doesn’t,

a 39% increase since 2008. Similarly, 71% of consumers would help a brand promote their products or services if there is a good cause behind them, an increase of of 34% since 2008.

Shoppers are especially receptive to purpose-driven messaging during the holidays, when they themselves are feeling more charitable. More than a third of all charitable giving occurs during the last three months of the year, with the highest percentage (17.5%) occurring in December — so merchants who showcase their initiatives during the holidays are likely to reach audiences looking for causes to support.

The action item

Merchants should promote any charitable giving initiatives prominently across their sites — and give shoppers the means to contribute. Among the options:

  • Promote a charity “flash sale”. While it may be too late to initiate an extensive charitable giving campaign, merchants can still get in the act by picking a day on which a percentage of all proceeds will benefit the brand’s chosen charity.
  • Build social momentum. As the ALS “ice bucket challenge” proved over the summer, the power of social media when it comes to stoking charitable intentions is considerable. Whether by donating a dollar for every “like” or creating a hashtag meme that encourages brand followers to spread the word and act, merchants should highlight charitable activities via social networks.
  • Go deep with purpose-driven content. Merchants should build and showcase extensive content about their chosen charitable giving campaign, from blog posts to photos and testimonials from beneficiaries of the brand’s largesse. Such content can compel shoppers to join in — or at least support the brand that’s doing the giving.

MarketLive merchant Jane Cosmetics maintains a micro-site dedicated to its charitable giving program, featuring videos and a customer community. The micro-site is accessible from the flagship eCommerce site via global navigation, and a home page promotion further spotlights the program.

Jane Cosmetics micro-site

This concludes our series on holiday best practices. Watch for up-to-the-minute holiday results starting next week with reports on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, and meantime you can review the entire Holiday Tips Series and read up on winning strategies in MarketLive’s holiday whitepapers. As the high season kicks off, we wish you good selling!

Holiday tip #11: Adjust PLAs on the fly for maximum revenues

Google’s Product Listing Ads have become a leading way to capture attention and convert sales for holiday gift searchers. As the season kicks into high gear, merchants should take advantage of the opportunity to fine tune their PLA offerings on the fly to maximize relevancy and sales.

The facts

For 2014, paid search is the top area for increased investment for merchants, and PLAs specifically are the #3 priority for increased spending, with 74% of merchants telling technology researcher Forrester they’re upping their investment.

Specifically during the holiday season, in the fourth quarter of 2013 investment in PLAs soared 80% year over year. Close to a quarter of total holiday search spend was allocated to PLAs, and that number is forecast to jump to 33% for the 2014 holiday season, according to Marin Software.

And these investments pay off in engagement: Marin Software reported that click-through rates for PLAs soared 20.5% year over year in the 2013 holiday season, compared with just a 4.6% click-through rate increase for text-based search ads.

The action item

While PLAs offer a ripe opportunity to reach shoppers beyond the eCommerce site, budget-conscious merchants must focus their activities to spotlight the most relevant products for the holidays — and use early results to shape late-season bids. They should:

  • Take advantage of a winning streak with multi-touchpoint messaging. Merchants should up bids on top sellers or take advantage of serendipitous PR buzz — and be sure to message in-store availability, if relevant, within the ad copy so that shoppers heading out into the fray know the products are available nearby.
  • Ensure PLA-promoted content is mobile-friendly. Merchants can specify distinct PLA landing pages for searchers on mobile devices, and even those who don’t must ensure that landing pages are mobile-friendly. And merchants should tweak their mobile templates to incorporate holiday offers in central content at the product page level, lest they’re overlooked in the global header.
  • Put promotions front and center.  Listings with the “special offer” tag are especially effective at capturing clicks, so if merchants offer free shipping with a promo code or free accessories or gifts with purchase, they should highlight those offers in the listing format, while at the same time staying within Google’s parameters for allowable offer content.

MarketLive merchant Delia’s includes its free shipping offer with promo code in its PLAs, thereby communicating to shoppers who are hungry to avoid delivery charges during the holiday season.

PLA example from Delia's

Watch for the final tip on the blog early next week, and read up on winning strategies in MarketLive’s holiday whitepapers.

Holiday tip #10: Elevate review content for the Black Friday blitz

When it comes to social content, nothing beats the old standby of customer reviews — especially during the holidays, when shoppers research heavily and rely on the testimonials of other buyers to inform their gifting decisions. Merchants should put reviews front and center and let shoppers’ picks guide merchandising and promotions.

The facts

Consumers report that customer reviews play an important part in the purchase consideration process. More than half of participants in the 2014 MarketLive Consumer Shopping Survey reported that writing reviews was somewhat or very important, and 49% said receiving product referrals from friends via social channels influenced their spending.

Further data demonstrates just how influential review are during the holidays, on Black Friday and Cyber monday in particular. According to reviews provider Bazaarvoice, traffic to user reviews spikes during the sales extravaganza the weekend after Thanksgiving, with Black Friday and Cyber Monday in 2013 beating the November daily average review pageviews by 77% and 84%, respectively. Overall in 2013,  review pageviews for the months of November and December exceeded that of all other months by 38% and 48%, respectively.

Data about reviews from Bazaarvoice

The action item

To capitalize on consumers’ usage of and trust in customer reviews, merchants should spotlight them prominently in campaigns that draw on the latest top picks to create shopper-centric product categories. Use reviews:

    • On the eCommerce site for mobile and desktop. “Top rated” categories should be a featured component of holiday gift sections.
    • In email campaigns. Featuring five-star gifts and excerpting review text gives shoppers access to relevant, authentic product information they can trust.
    • On social media. As discussed in Monday’s tip, a Pinterest pinboard showcasing customer favorites can spur repins and purchases.  And enabling brand followers to view and contribute reviews directly from within Facebook increase the engagement power of review content, as Figi’s does with its “Ratings and Reviews” Facebook page. Both customer favorites and featured products are spotlighted, along with the most recent reviews.

holidaytip10_reviewsfigisWatch for 2 more holiday tips on the blog through Black Friday, and read up on winning strategies in MarketLive’s holiday whitepapers.

Holiday tip #9: Optimize Pinterest for peak social engagement

We’ve already discussed the steps merchants can take across all their social networks to ensure that followers find their way to relevant products and content. But when it comes to choosing which social networks deserve special focus, one stands out: Pinterest.

The facts

Facebook wins when it comes to overall users, with 71% of online adults using the network as of a year ago. But Pinterest has experienced a meteoric rise since its debut in 2011, and by several counts contends with LinkedIn for #2 social network status. Moreover, when it comes to all-important mobile engagement, 92% of all time spent on Pinterest comes from mobile users — surpassing Facebook at 68%.

Specifically when it comes to holiday shopping, consumers say that Pinterest plays a key role. Close to one in five shoppers — 18% — say that looking for gift ideas on Pinterest is “very important”, and 17% said pinning items on Pinterest is a key activity, according to the 2014 MarketLive Consumer Shopping Survey.

Statistics from the MarketLive Consumer Shopping Survey

The action item

Given Pinterest’s influence over gift purchasing, merchants should allocate significant resources to creating engaging pinboard content — and encouraging pins on the part of shoppers. Tactics to deploy:

  • Add “pin it” functionality to the eCommerce site — for desktop and mobile. Enable shoppers to share items to their pinboards with minimal friction.
  • On the branded Pinterest outpost, mix products with aspirational, inspirational content. Make your boards more than just a product catalog by repinning value-added content, whether from your own site or not, to draw in those who share similar interests but may not yet be familiar with the brand. Holiday tips and favorite recipes attuned to the tastes of the target audience are especially apt right now.
  • Don’t forget the video. Pinterest enables posting video directly onto pinboards, and given that video viewing is a top social and mobile activity, merchants should take advantage of that capability to the fullest extent possible.
  • When it comes to products, escape the category replication trap. Instead of simply re-posting items from the holiday gift guide to a board, merchants should mix it up with innovative categories that put customers front and center.

MarketLive merchant Design Toscano presents a variety of innovative product pinboards. “Five Star Products” showcases items that have won top ratings from customers. “DT’s Favorite Entertainment” includes video clips and other media mentions of products, while “Fan Favorites” spotlights customer-submitted pictures of products in use.

Pinterest example from Design Toscano

Watch for 3 more holiday tips on the blog through Black Friday, and read up on winning strategies in MarketLive’s holiday whitepapers.

Holiday tip #8: Make mobile tools prominent across touchpoints

With mobile poised to play a dominant role in holiday shopping, merchants should maximize visibility of their mobile offerings by promoting at critical junctures across touchpoints.

The facts

Proof of the power of mobile is everywhere. Statistics show that not only are shoppers using their mobile devices to consult product information and look up store hours, but they’re increasingly making purchases on the go, with 24% of total revenues now attributable to mobile, according to the MarketLive Performance Index.

The holidays present an especially ripe opportunity for mobile engagement, as shoppers are bustling to physical stores to take advantage of seasonal deals as well as intensifying their online purchasing. Last year, mobile visits grew 34% and mobile sales grew 43% on Black Friday alone, and all indications are that this year will see even greater gains.

The action item

Mobile offerings are increasingly integral to merchants’ online offerings — so integral that many brands don’t even promote them separately. But merchants who’ve worked hard to optimize their mobile offerings should promote them as a brand differentiator, and even those with basic mobile sites should let holiday shoppers know they can at least look up store hours and reach customer service on the go.

The key is to place mobile prompts in spots most likely to reach engaged shoppers looking to stay in touch. Top locations include:

  • Black Friday preview pages. Shoppers already scoping out deals are likely to appreciate the opportunity to check in on the go throughout the season.
  • Store locator pages. Let shoppers know they can access the product information and buying advice on the eCommerce site when on the go.
  • Social media. Well over half of all social media consumption occurs on mobile devices, so merchants should promote mobile offerings to brand followers.
  • Mobile sites. It may seem redundant to promote mobile offerings on mobile, but merchants with apps should be sure their mobile Web sites point visitors to the download.
  • Welcome emails. New subscribers who’ve signed up to receive holiday seals should be introduced to all the brand’s offerings, including the availability of mobile purchasing or apps. MarketLive merchant Design Within Reach promotes its iPad app prominently in the first email new subscribers receive, listing the mobile feature alongside shopping categories in the message body’s top navigation.

Example of mobile promo in email from DWR

Holiday tip #7: Win the email engagement battle

With more merchants competing for holiday shopping dollars using more frequent email promotions than ever before, the quest to earn opens, clicks and conversions has never been tougher. An obsessive focus on relevance can help merchants score inbox wins.

The facts

Shoppers’ attitudes toward email are largely positive, with one in four consumers saying email is a great way to find out about offers and promotions, according to technology researcher Forrester. Perhaps surprisingly, email even performs well among younger shoppers, with 9% of 18-to-34-year-olds saying they’ve clicked on an email to purchase featured items, versus 7% of consumers overall.

But there’s a limit to shoppers’ goodwill. More than 71% of consumers say they start ignoring emails when multiple messages are sent per day from the same brand, and close to 60% say they often delete emails as soon as they’re received, according to the 2014 MarketLive Consumer Shopping Survey. Half of shoppers say emails rarely get their attention, and 38% admit that they scan most emails on their phone rather than read them carefully on the computer. Fully 37% of consumers told Forrester they’ve unsubscribed from an email list, and 24% wish it were easier to unsubscribe.

Data from the ML Consumer Shopping Survey about email

The action item

To prove that they deserve a spot in shoppers’ inboxes, merchants should adopt a “less is more” attitude and deliver only the most relevant offers possible.

While merchants who’ve deployed personalization services can most easily fulfill this goal with individually-tailored messaging, brands with less-sophisticated implementations can still deliver relevant experiences and earn subscribers’ goodwill. All merchants should:

  • Up frequency only when justified. Merchants planning “12 Days of Christmas”-type promotions have a built-in reason to send daily updates. By contrast, sites whose offerings change less frequently through the season should scale back email accordingly.
  • Display geo-relevance. Including region-specific shipping deadlines or local store hours can boost convenience for shoppers.
  • Use social ties to drive interest and clicks. Engage shoppers with messages tied to their social recommendations or shared products, or use participatory social campaigns to trigger shopping invitations, as MarketLive merchant Modell’s is doing with its season-long social sweepstakes campaign. The Subject: line “Pick-Em Week 2 Results Are In!” spurs recipients to open the email to see if they’ve won the weekly contest; the message contains a 20% discount offer for everyone, redeemable in-stores or online.

Holiday email example from Modell's

Watch for 5 more holiday tips on the blog through Black Friday, and read up on winning strategies in MarketLive’s holiday whitepapers.