Performance Index: merchants well-positioned for final holiday push

The clock is ticking down on the holiday season, and the latest data from the MarketLive Performance Index indicates that merchants are beginning their final push well-positioned to see sustained growth.

In the week of December 9, which began with “Green Monday” (the last Monday in December with at least 10 days before Christmas), Performance Index merchants saw revenue gains of almost 30%, thanks in part to a traffic increase of 23%. Conversion rose by 3.4%, and the average order size outpaced last year’s by 3.5%, again suggesting that merchants are winning sales without resorting to constant bargain-basement pricing.

Combined with the record gains achieved during Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the latest strong results put merchants on track to end the season with substantial sales growth. Cumulative season-to-date revenue is 30% higher than last year, despite the shortened season, and conversion is up more than 6%, while average order size is more than 2% higher than last year.

Holiday data from the MarketLive Performance Index

For many merchants, the deadline is nigh for delivery by Christmas Eve via ground shipping — so the trick for sustaining revenue gains through the end of the season will be to encourage continue spending despite this logistical hurdle. Tactics merchants can adopt include:

Highlighting in-stock items. Merchants should flag items that are in-stock, both for online purchase and for pickup or purchase in stores — enabling shoppers to zero in on the gifts that can make it under the tree in time.

Pairing a collection of in-stock gift finds with a discount on expedited shipping provides online buyers with a compelling reason to complete their purchases immediately. For merchants with physical store outlets, enabling online browsers to view items that qualify for in-store pickup before Christmas at a location near them smooths the online-offline purchase process.

MarketLive merchant Helzberg Diamonds promotes “green truck” items that are guaranteed to arrive on time if purchased by December 23. An icon and shipping estimate are provided on the product page, with a key explaining the fulfillment classification system and displaying estimated delivery dates for each.

Guaranteed delivery promotion from Helzberg

Product page example from Helzberg

Shipping cutoffs explained, from Helzberg

Easing the last-minute store rush. Merchants with physical store locations should move links to the store locator out of the customer service section and into the spotlight. They should additionally bolster standard store-locator information with promotions of relevant online content and services. Gap’s store locator for shoppers browsing the eCommerce site on their desktop or laptop displays not only location-specific hours, but promotes the ability to reserve items online for purchase in-store, along with a curated gift guide showcasing tailored gift picks. On the mobile site, Gap’s store locator — always anchored prominently on the home page — calls out holiday hours in the “Special Hours” section.

Store locator example from Gap

Mobile store locator from Gap

Boosting e-gift card visibility. As discussed in last week’s post, merchants should promote gift card options ubiquitously, in locations that go far beyond the holiday gift guide section. And in the final week, gift cards should receive pride of place on the home page, with merchants highlighting swift delivery via email and flexibility as main selling points. And on the gift card product page, merchants should ensure that options for physical versus virtual gift cards are clearly delineated, so that shoppers wishing to purchase cards for delivery by Christmas are sure to pick the right one.  MarketLive merchant dELiA*s promotes delivery timeframes along with gift card options on its home page. The gift card product page has been updated to reiterate the cutoff dates and delineates the two separate ordering processes for physical versus virtual cards.

Gift card promotion from dELiA*s

Gift card product page from dELiA*s

What last-minute tactics are you employing to keep shoppers engaged through the end of the season?

Performance Index: Cyber Monday week sees major gains

As the short holiday season hits the halfway mark, the news is encouraging for specialty and niche merchants. According to weekly data from the MarketLive Performance Index, Cyber Monday and the week that followed continued the Thanksgiving weekend trend of increased traffic and improved performance metrics, driving overall revenues 32% higher compared with the same week last year.

Furthermore, the data suggests that even amidst heavy discounting, merchants are making strong gains. For one, while traffic for December 2 – December 9 grew by 17%, revenue grew even more substantially, suggesting that individual buyers are purchasing more than last year.  The conversion rate increased by 2.4%. Meantime, the average order size compared with last year held steady, suggesting merchants are successfully wooing shoppers without necessarily discounting steeply.

MarketLive Performance Index data

The only performance challenge merchants face is with the add-to-cart rate, which plummeted nearly a full percentage point, by more than 8%, compared with the prior week. With offers flying fast and furious, shoppers are comparison shopping and waiting for the right deal to entice them to finalize purchases. While overall the add-to-cart rate for the season is up by 11.3%, merchants should redouble their efforts to convert shoppers to buyers. Among the quick tactics to try:

Promote limited-time offers beyond the obvious spots.  Merchants should include notices about free shipping offers or price discounts in the cart, whether via a global banner or a promotional fill slot. But even before shoppers reach that milestone on the path to purchase, merchants should flag promotions and direct shoppers to relevant information. Locations to consider include:

  • The drop-down global cart. As we’ve noted previously, graphics or images in motion are more likely to capture our attention than static site content, so including promotions in this automated display stand a better chance of being seen.

  • In secondary navigation. When used, a left-hand column usually exposes the depth of products on offer, whether via  a detailed sub-category list or by using a guided-navigation-style list of attributes shoppers can access to resolve problems. But it’s also an opportunity to reiterate the latest promotion and its end date, so that shoppers can access details from wherever on the site they roam.

  • On product pages. With consumers increasingly accessing eCommerce sites via interior pages after being directed there from search engines, it’s crucial for merchants to feature deals right alongside product content.MarketLive merchant Armani Exchange highlights current discounts in red on the product page, calling out the free shipping thresholds and “deal of the week” merchandise.

Promotion example from Armani Exchange

Fine-tune triggered emails. As we’ve reported previously, nearly three-quarters of merchants don’t yet have a triggered email program in place to attempt to recapture sales after consumers leave the site.  While it’s too late to institute such a program from scratch right now, merchants with existing abandoned-cart triggered emails should consider revamping them slightly. The messages should include:

  • Plenty of product content. Merchants should incorporate more than just the image of the product the shopper left in the cart, but should take the opportunity to provide a longer product story. A comprehensive description, paired with how-to videos demonstrating usage and even a buying guide matching the product category, can win over hesitant shoppers by helping them envision how the product might fit or feel.

  • Abundant customer service links. Merchants should put contact information front and center in cart-recovery messages, with links to product guarantees and delivery timelines that help shoppers what they need.

  • Social connectors. The ability to connect to communities of followers on social outposts may help shoppers find lifestyle content that convinces them to commit to a purchase from the brand.

Clothier French Connection puts it all together in its cart abandonment email. In addition to displaying a picture of the abandoned item and the means to link directly to checkout, the message includes a sizable section describing customer service and displaying contact information. A series of links at the bottom of the message directs shoppers to connect via social media.
Abandoned cart email from French Connection

What tactics are you using to drive continued engagement through the holiday season?

The 3 locations merchants overlook when promoting gift cards

As the holiday season rounds the bend into the final fortnight, merchants would do well to step up promotion of gift cards. As we previously reported, gift card sales are poised to soar again this year, with more than half of shoppers reporting they’ll turn to gift cards for at more than one in 10 recipients on their list, according to the MarketLive Consumer Shopping Survey. Industry-wide, the National Retail Federation reports that 8 in 10 shoppers will purchase  a gift card this season, and the amount spent on gift cards will jump 4% compared with last year.

Given the importance of gift cards, most merchants by now know to promote their offerings prominently, and to pre-empt customer service enquiries by clearly spelling out delivery options redemption policies. But while there’s almost always a home page link to gift card purchasing and mention of gift cards in email campaigns, there are several key junctures merchants are missing when it comes to gift-card messaging.

As shoppers become increasingly desperate to find gifts for the final names on their lists, and as order deadlines for items to arrive in time pass, merchants should use every means available to promote gift cards. Tweak site presentation and promotions now to highlight gift cards:

In transactional email. Recent buyers are low-hanging fruit for merchants; they’re already familiar with the brand and have committed to purchasing. And as we’ve reported earlier, the majority of consumers now expect to receive promotional information along with order and delivery confirmation emails, according to a study from the E-Tailing Group and MyBuys. Merchants should remind these customers that after scoring a valuable gift find the first time around, they can take care of other recipients on their list with ease and convenience using gift cards.

Via social media. It’s one thing to post a status update or Tweet reminding followers to pick up last-minute gift cards; it’s another to anchor gift cards into the social experience. Merchants should make gift card information — or better yet, direct gift card purchase — one of the main links from the Timeline page in Facebook, and include a direct link to gift card purchasing from Twitter. Merchants can even get creative and build Pinterest pinboards around top items for gift-card recipients.

MarketLive merchant Sport Chalet has anchored a link to gift cards from a prominent spot on the brand’s Facebook Timeline. Followers can buy either a physical card or an e-gift card directly from within Facebook, upping convenience by enabling them to complete gift purchases without leaving the social environment.

Gift card promotion from Sport Chalet

On product pages. While most merchants include prominent promotion of gift cards on their eCommerce site home pages and in holiday gift guides, many shoppers now enter brand sites directly on product pages via search engine results. A text link in the global header doesn’t suffice to alert these incoming visitors to gift card options; merchants should incorporate a promotion within the center content area — if need be, by using a cross-sell slot, as ThinkGeek does with an anchored “Gift Certificates” link.

Gift certificate promotion from ThinkGeek

Where and how are you promoting gift cards this holiday season?

Performance Index: Holiday season off to strong start

The initial results are in from the Thanksgiving and Black Friday weekend, and merchants have reason to rejoice. Data from the MarketLive Performance Index, which reports aggregate data from leading specialty merchants, shows year over year sales gains of more than 50% on both Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday, with Saturday and Sunday each earning revenue growth of more than 40%.

The increased sales were driven by double-digit growth in visits throughout the weekend that peaked with a 44% jump in traffic on Black Friday. Improvements in the add-to-cart rate, conversion rate and abandonment rate indicated that merchants have fine-tuned offerings to present relevant products and offers that spur shoppers to become buyers.

Performance Index data for Black Friday weekend

These results are especially heartening after indications that the weekend brought lean results industry-wide. The National Retail Federation estimated that overall sales in stores and online totaled $57.4 billion — a 1.7% drop compared with the organization’s 2012 estimate of $59.1 billion for the same weekend. Online, the news was brighter, with measurement firm comScore reporting revenue gains of 21% for Thanksgiving and 5% for Black Friday, when online sales topped $1 billion for the day.

The even stronger results from the MarketLIve Index suggest that small- to mid-sized merchants are winning buyers without necessarily resorting to the deep-discounting strategies adopted by leading mass merchants whose combined revenues make up the lion’s share of the industry results. By presenting shoppers with comprehensive product and lifestyle content, building a community of like-minded enthusiasts, showcasing superior customer service and encouraging repeat sales and long-term loyalty, merchants are successfully competing with Amazon and other top online destinations, even during this ultra-competitive season.

To continue outperforming the industry for the remainder of the season, merchants should:

Encourage repeat engagement. Many merchants we surveyed over the peak buying weekend had launched extended initiatives spotlighting one product or deal per day. Such campaigns not only entice shoppers to continually return to the site and potentially make additional purchases as new offers are revealed, but they also provide buzz-worthy fodder for sharing via social media. MarketLive merchant World Market launched its “24 Days of Deals” over the weekend, with a daily discount presented via an Advent-calendar type layout on the eCommerce site.

Holiday promotion from World Market

Entice social followers into deeper interaction. Social media can be an effective tool for driving new visitors to brand sites, and during this peak season, savvy merchants are capitalizing on the buzz on social outposts to encourage further engagement from followers. Among the tactics in play:

  • Sweepstakes that allow shoppers to enter daily or earn extra entries when they share products or offers with friends

  • User-generated content submissions that express the brand’s identity

  • Direct purchasing via Facebook — especially for gift cards

  • Email signup via Facebook

MarketLive merchant dELiA*s offers Facebook followers the opportunity to sign up to receive email updates without leaving the social network environment. Followers can even register using their profile information, further smoothing the signup process. By promising that subscribers will “always be the first” to learn about new products and promotions, dELiA*s appeals to social followers accustomed to receiving constant updates and being instantly in-the-know. By subscribing to email alerts, followers will receive word of brand offerings even if they happen to miss an individual post or Tweet.

Social email signup from Delia's

Stay tuned to the blog for further holiday results throughout the season. Meantime, how was your Black Friday weekend, and what tactics are seeing the most success for your brand?

Last-minute Black Friday prep: 2 reasons why mobile is the top priority

The juggernaut that is the Thanksgiving-Black Friday-CyberMonday shopping weekend is looming just one week away, and merchants and industry watchers alike are preparing for a holiday kickoff blitz. With the clock ticking down, one priority in particular is emerging as a worthy focal point for last-minute preparations: mobile offerings.
Recently-released research shows that mobile is poised to play a more crucial role than even the hype has predicted, for both online and offline shoppers alike. Among the reasons merchants should spend the next week fine-tuning their offerings:

Smartphones are now the primary starting point for shoppers. This fall, smartphones crossed a crucial threshold, becoming the touchpoint most often used for retail interactions, according to measurement firm comScore. Since August, smartphones have owned the majority of minutes spent interacting with retail brands, and in September, the percentage was 7% higher than desktop. That’s a relatively small gap in terms of percentage points — but it’s a significant reversal compared with earlier this year, when desktop held a 32% lead. And when taken together, tablets and smartphones dominate, grabbing 59% of minutes in September.

Mobile usage data from comScore

To entice consumer starting their shopping journeys via mobile, merchants should enact these last-minute tweaks:

  • Spotlight mobile in email. While it’s important for merchants to incorporate mobile promotions across all available touchpoints, email is especially crucial for the upcoming holiday kickoff. For example, 68% of consumers say they’ll find out about Cyber Monday promotions via email, according to measurement firm Nielsen — a ripe opportunity for merchants to both promote products and discounts and the means to continue engagement throughout the season on mobile devices. Even if merchants’ email messaging isn’t optimized for small screens (and it should be), the content should prominently promote mobile offerings, whether they be apps, SMS sale alerts, or an especially robust store locator on the mobile Web site.

  • Double down on mobile paid search. Any merchants with wiggle room in the budget at this late date should focus their paid search investments on targeted messaging for mobile. The percentage of clicks on Product Listing Ads from mobile devices jumped in Q3 to nearly a third of the total, with smartphones garnering fully one in five PLA clicks, according to The Search Agency. And while tablet cost-per-click rates now rival desktop pricing, smartphone rates still lag, making smartphone-targeted listings a relative bargain in the competition to engage shoppers at the outset of their shopping journey.

Mobile search ad CPC data from The Search Agency

Mobile can play a huge role in store sales — in more ways than one. Across the board, analysts anticipate that mobile devices will see heavy shopping use while consumers are roaming physical store outlets. The MarketLive Consumer Shopping Survey found that more than half of shoppers intend to look for coupons or other discounts and to research competitive pricing while shopping in stores, and more than 40% plan to use their phones as research tools to look up ratings and reviews and in-depth product information.

MarketLive Consumer Shopping Survey data on smartphone usage

While the prospect of this price-comparison shopping has long terrified merchants, as we’ve previously discussed, the greatest likelihood is that consumers who “showroom” will end up making purchases in the very store they’re visiting. To transform a potential threat into a sales opportunity, merchants should devote last-minute attention to:

  • In-store/online linkage points. Consider adding further store signage pointing shoppers to holiday-specific content on the eCommerce site, such as gift guides or gift card redemption policies. As well, merchants should use stores to promote social engagement opportunities such as holiday-themed contests as well as email subscriptions — thereby opening the door to repeat engagement with shoppers throughout the season.

  • Priming store associates to interact with mobile-empowered shoppers. The eCommerce site can play an especially vital role in the store experience when shoppers are guided by a brand expert in person. Among the ways sales reps can win business for the brand using online tools:

    • They can save sales via the “endless aisle.” If sought-after items are “out of stock” in physical stores, a heartening 47% of consumers said they would find another way to buy from the same brand, compared with 45% who would take their business elsewhere, Deloitte found. Knowledgeable store associates can lend a crucial assist to the 23% of shoppers who said they would locate the item at another of the same brand’s physical outlets, and to the 24% who would source the item from the same brand’s Web site.

    • They can distinguish themselves — and the brand — as knowledgeable experts. Fully 54% of shoppers said they’re be more likely to make purchases in stores where sales associates are knowledgeable, according to consulting firm Deloitte’s holiday forecast. The ability to quickly access relevant product information and connect shoppers with discounts via any available touchpoint can play a key role in building trust and credibility, especially as 59% of consumers currently believe they’re more knowledgeable than store staff about pricing and product availability.

Data on importance of store associates from Deloitte

What last-minute mobile tactics are you adopting for Black Friday and beyond?

Last-minute free shipping tweaks for the holidays

If there’s one promotion merchants bank on to make their holiday season a success, it’s the free shipping offer. After all, free shipping tops the list of consumers’ favorite promotions, with 91% saying they’re likely to take advantage of free delivery with no threshold and nearly one in two saying they’d make enough purchases to qualify for a free shipping threshold, according to the MarketLive/e-tailing group Consumer Shopping Survey.

But new research suggests that merchants don’t do enough to promote their free shipping offerings. For one, just 26% of the largest online merchants devote significant home page space to free shipping promotions with medium or large-sized banners, according to Forrester Research — and fully one in five merchants don’t flag free shipping with any banner at all. Free shipping promotions are scarcer still on product pages, in the global cart and main shopping cart page, all of which are opportunities to remind shoppers of the opportunity for savings — not to mention on other touchpoints such as social media outposts and mobile sites.

This is an oversight there is still time to rectify with timely messaging that can help merchants stand out from the crowd. Among the tactics to consider:

Message with your competition in mind — starting with Amazon. gifted other merchants early this season with its recent announcement of a higher free shipping threshold for shoppers who aren’t members of its Prime subscription service. The 40% jump still only raises the threshold to $35, but the move is a boon for those merchants who can match or better that amount.

Beyond Amazon, merchants should also be aware of what their competitors are offering and what industry standards are for thresholds. Some averages, according to the Forrester report:

Average free shipping thresholds from Forrester

Armed with this knowledge, merchants needn’t rush to change their policies, but rather should fine-tune their messaging. Merchants who can match Amazon or offer a lower threshold than their competitors should play up the price point prominently; those whose threshold is higher than average should tout special service offerings, product guarantees, and easy returns to compensate. MarketLive merchant dELiA*s supplements its $75 free shipping deal with a $25 coupon toward the next purchase — an offer that sweetens the deal for consumers while also encouraging repeat purchases.

Free shipping offer from dEliA*s

Don’t forget mobile users. Too often, merchants focus their free shipping messaging on the eCommerce site and email promotions, without creating corresponding promotions on the mobile site. That’s a mistake, as mobile shoppers are especially apt to be using their devices for research and price comparison. Sixty-four percent of smartphone owners say they plan to use their devices to check for sales and discounts, while more than one in two say they’ll seek out competitive pricing, according to the MarketLive survey.

While mobile sites need to be streamlined for maximum efficiency, merchants should still dedicate screen real estate to free shipping offers throughout the path to purchase, as well as linking to information about any free in-store pickup options available. Piperlime anchors in the global header of its mobile site a promotion of its “free shipping both ways” offer with no threshold, prominently calling attention to its competitive policy.

Free shipping offer for mobile users from Piperlime

Incorporate messaging into triggered emails.  Promotion of free shipping offers shouldn’t be limited to email campaigns sent to existing subscribers. Merchants should also incorporate the offers into triggered emails to alert cart abandoners, potential replenishment candidates and even recipients of immediate post-purchase notifications about the opportunity to earn free shipping. Such incentives could spur re-engagement with the brand, recouping potentially lost sales or earning repeat business. Macy’s promotes its free shipping offer with a $99 threshold in welcome emails to new subscribers, alerting them to the policy with a banner below the header navigation.

Free shipping notice in triggered email from Macy's

How are you positioning and promoting your holiday free shipping offers?

Five ways to use Pinterest this holiday season

Pinterest’s meteoric rise to near the top of the social networking ranks and its ability to drive eCommerce sales make it a ripe opportunity for merchants. Now, with the upcoming holiday season potentially driving more users than ever to pin and share their most-wanted products, maximizing the efficacy of a brand’s Pinterest presence should be a top priority.

The holiday-themed pinboards popping up on merchants sites are just one way to capitalize on seasonal Pinterest activity. Across touchpoints, opportunities abound to create compelling Pinterest content, integrate it with relevant offers and encourage pinning and re-pinning. Among them:

Take advantage of rich pins. As we’ve discussed in a previous post, merchants who don’t have an official brand outpost on Pinterest can still leverage the site’s popularity by making their eCommerce site content pin-worthy. Additionally, merchants should use structured markup to ensure their product information can be parsed by Pinterest’s “rich pins” feature, which automatically incorporates and displays product information such as price and in-stock status. As further incentive to delve into the code, in August Pinterest introduced an enhancement that alerts pinners via email when the price drops on pinned items — essentially providing a price-watching service for favorite products. It’s an invaluable tool for merchants, especially during the holiday season, when consumers will be on the hunt for price breaks.

Pinterest email notification

Use boards to capture a lifestyle experience. Too often, merchants who do have Pinterest profiles for their brands simply use pinboards to replicate eCommerce site categories, rather than taking advantage of the ability to showcase a curated array of items and influences. While doing the latter requires a greater investment in resources, merchants who create truly engaging pinboards are not only more likely to attract potential buyers, but also demonstrate their understanding of customers’ priorities and lifestyle inspirations, boosting the credibility of the brand.

MarketLive merchant Griot’s Garage features a pinboard called “On the Lot,” showcasing interesting cars spotted in the parking lot of the brand’s flagship store. While the board features no product links, it serves to demonstrate that Griot’s is powered by an appreciation for car restoration and unique vehicles — creating affinity with the brand’s clientele.

Griot's Garage pinboard on Pinterest

Use Pinterest content in email. Not only does the Pinterest site itself drive highly motivated shopping traffic to eCommerce sites, but Pinterest-related content can stimulate engagement and clicks in email campaigns as well. Marketing services firm Experian found that Pinterest-related campaigns generate open rates 11% higher and click rates 25% higher than other campaigns. To take advantage of this heightened attention, merchants should consider dedicating an email message to announcing the availability of a Pinterest brand outpost, craft email promotions around top-pinned items and enable pinning directly from message content.

MarketLive merchant Learning Resources promoted the availability of a Pinterest board especially for its UK audience with an email message enumerating five reasons to follow the brand and displaying a variety of boards as examples of the relevant content  the merchant offers.

Learning Resources' Pinterest email promo

Integrate Pinterest content within Facebook. While Pinterest is growing fast, Facebook continues to dwarf all rivals in terms of mass audience — so merchants should promote the availability of Pinterest content on Facebook, where their number of followers is likely to be larger. Additionally, they should consider integrating Pinterest content directly onto a Facebook tab as a means of showcasing the engaging content they’ve created, and encouraging Facebook followers to engage on another platform.

MarketLive merchant H2O Plus positions a link to its Pinterest tab prominently on its Timeline page on Facebook. Clicking the link showcases the brand’s pinboards, including intriguing theme boards such as “H2O Destinations” and “Beach Inspired Weddings.” The alluring content inspires the brand’s 57,000 Facebook followers to investigate further on the Pinterest site itself.

H2O Plus Pinterest-Facebook integration

Encourage wishlists with a sweepstakes contest. “Pin it to win it” contests are by now commonplace, but they’re worth mentioning again because they’re particularly apt now. Not only do such contests encourage shoppers to self-select favorite products, but during the holidays they’re likely to share their pinboards with others as de facto wish lists, upping exposure for the brand. It’s also worthwhile for merchants to revisit their “Pin it to win it” plans to ensure they comply with Pinterest’s tightened rules about contests and promotions — which include restrictions on requiring entrants to pin specific products.

MarketLive merchant Party City is engaging Halloween shoppers with its “Pin to Win” sweepstakes campaign, in which entrants pinning anything from the Party City Web site or Pinterest page qualify for the random drawing.

Party City Pinterest contest

How are you using Pinterest this holiday season?

Three ways to stretch 27 days into a successful season

Among the challenges merchants face in the coming holiday season is the prospect of a shortened timeframe in which to achieve their goals. With Thanksgiving falling late this year,  merchants have a scant 27 days from the traditional start of the season on Black Friday (November 29) until Christmas Day.

Thankfully, consumers are starting their shopping earlier and pushing the last-minute envelope later than ever, giving merchants the opportunity to stretch the season to the fullest extent possible. Despite reports of a backlash against the intrusion of Black Friday commercialism into the Thanksgiving holiday, the fact is that consumers took advantage of opportunities to shop early for deals in 2012, with measurement firm comScore reporting online sales growth of 32% for Thanksgiving Day.  And this year, more than one-third of consumers say they’ll shop for gifts online even earlier — on the day before Thanksgiving, according to the MarketLive/E-Tailing Group Consumer Shopping Survey.

Data from the MarketLive/E-Tailing Group

On the tail end of the season, the survey found that fully 78% of consumers don’t envision finishing their gift buying before December. And more than half of consumers plan to shop online on Free Shipping Day December 18 — just 7 days before Christmas.

To cater to these behaviors, merchants should adopt a broad timeframe for holiday shopping promotions, and consider these ways to extend the excitement of the season:

Start now with early-season suggestions. In the runup to Thanksgiving, merchants should launch their gift guides with a spotlight on products to help shoppers prepare for the busy season ahead — from cookware to holiday party outfits to gift wrap. Not only does such early positioning anchor content in time for search engines to catalog it, but it encourages shoppers to get organized and purchase early. MarketLive merchant World Market has added a twinkling “Holiday” banner to the global navigation, with prime positioning awarded to decor, entertaining, cookware and gift wrap in preparation for the season ahead.

Gift guide example from World Market

Begin Black Friday early. We’ve discussed before the need to balance Black Friday messaging to encourage immediate and subsequent purchasing, but with this year’s shortened season, it seems prudent to tip the scales in favor of more promotions early. In fact, merchants should consider whether to officially launch Black Friday deals — not just preview them — in advance of Thanksgiving, as Dell did in 2012 with this email offer that began the Tuesday before the holiday.

2012 early Black Friday promotion

Start out promoting gift cards prominently — and promote them still more later.  For 60% of shoppers, at least one out of every 10 gifts purchased will be in the form of a gift card, and many consumers plan to reply on gift cards even more heavily, the MarketLive survey found.

Data from MarketLive/The E-Tailing Group

Gift cards make an attractive option for last-minute shoppers: they provide a solution for gift recipients who are hard to buy for, as well as being available for instant email delivery after shipping cutoff dates have passed. So merchants should step up the drumbeat of promotions for gift cards as the season progresses and give them top prominence in the final days before Christmas. Last year, American Eagle dedicated an email promotion solely to gift cards, highlighting the available delivery methods with the tagline “three easy ways to give.” The brand also tied gift card purchasing to charitable giving, donating a portion of every gift card purchase to Big Brothers/Big Sisters.

2012 gift card promotion from AE

How do you plan to make the most of the short holiday season?

Webinar recap: 3 reasons to be optimistic this holiday season

There was a plethora of information in Wednesday’s webinar reviewing the results of the 2013 MarketLive/E-Tailing Group Holiday Shopping Survey. While we’ll cover specific themes and tactics in the weeks to come, we thought it worthwhile to set the tone for the holidays with some uplifting news: this year has plenty of potential to reap great rewards for merchants.


It’s certainly true that merchants will face stiff competition and plenty of challenges this holiday season, as we reported in our recent post on holiday sales forecasts. The National Retail Federation’s predicted overall retail sales growth rate of 4.1% is almost 27% lower than the recent highs of 2010 and 2011, which both saw gains of 5.6%. And in Wednesday’s webinar, E-Tailing Group president Lauren Freedman said that 47% of merchants surveyed said they’re nervous about not meeting aggressive sales goals, while more than a third said they believed the year would result in flat sales growth at best.

But the webinar also pinpointed a number of areas where consumers themselves indicated they’re both ready to spend and receptive to merchant offerings. Here are three reasons to feel confident heading into the season — and three ways to translate the opportunities into tangible tactics:

Shoppers are willing to buy more, in more categories, than ever. Fully 40% of consumers said they planned to make more holiday purchases online this year than last year, and for almost every product category the percentage of shoppers planning purchases has risen significantly, indicating increased confidence in online buying and appreciation of the convenience, savings and selection on offer. And some of the most dramatic increases by category are in high-ticket items, such as jewelry and watches, which shows 86% growth in online purchase intent, and consumer electronics, at 53% growth.

E-Tailing Group/MarketLive survey data

Merchants should take advantage of consumers’ broad-mindedness by showcasing the broadest possible assortment of potential gift items via home page displays, gift guides and email creative that emphasize variety. MarketLive merchant Sundance Catalog used its 2012 gift guide to showcase categories from gift wrap to footwear to jewelry, increasing the likelihood that shoppers would spot items for recipients on their lists.

Gift guide example from Sundance Catalog

Shoppers are more willing to buy items at full price. While the survey showed that shoppers remain price-conscious and hungry for discounts (especially free shipping), the percentage of consumers who said they would never pay full price for an item dropped significantly compared with 2012. While more than a third of consumers last year said they would refuse to pay full price for items, 2013’s survey found that less than a quarter of shoppers now share the same sentiment — a 31% drop. Meantime, more consumers are willing to pay for unique finds that perfectly match gift recipients, for items that never go on sale and for hot-selling items difficult to source in physical stores. Rewards for purchasing, including free shipping and loyalty points, are further incentives to pay full price, participants said.

E-Tailing Group/MarketLive survey data

To capitalize on this opportunity, merchants should promote wish list creation and sharing, including Pinterest wish list boards — perhaps via a “win your wish list” or “pin it to win it” contest — as a means of encouraging consumers to self-identify ideal gift picks. Additionally, merchants should message prominently the uniqueness of their wares, spotlighting the craftsmanship and/or traditions behind the products. MarketLive merchant Simon Pearce devotes considerable content resources to detailing the painstaking craftsmanship, traditions and company heritage the brand represents, underscoring the uniqueness and value of the pieces on offer.

Content example from Simon Pearce

Shoppers are willing to buy on smartphones — yes, smartphones. Tablets have performed so strongly in the early going that much emphasis has been placed on their potential to make mobile commerce a viable reality. But the survey revealed that smartphones stand to make a significant impact this season as well. Given that all participants in the survey owned smartphones, fully 53% of them said they intended to use their devices to buy gifts, while research activities scored even higher.

E-Tailing Group/MarketLive survey data

This news should come as a relief to merchants who’ve invested in optimizing their mobile sites for transactions, not just browsing. While it’s too late to make major changes to mobile site design or functionality, merchants can still make meaningful adjustments to ensure maximum effectiveness for their mobile offerings. For starts, gift guides, gift card information and other holiday-centric site sections should all be featured prominently in mobile format. Customer service information is another key component to spotlight, including prominent access to live chat and the click-to-call 800 number, shipping cutoff dates, and order tracking as well as the store locator.

Finally, merchants should promote mobile functionality prominently and fully integrate mobile messaging into holiday campaigns, as Nordstrom did in 2012 with its “Giving Made Easy” email campaign. “Shop Our Site on the Go” is included in a comprehensive list of convenient and time-saving services, alerting recipients to the availability of mobile purchasing.

Mobile promotion example from Nordstrom

What’s your outlook for the 2013 holiday season, and what strategies do you forecast will be successful?

Holiday first look: Merchants brace for competitive season

If the first 2013 holiday forecasts are accurate, merchants are in for a tough but potentially rewarding battle. Overall retail sales growth is expected to be tepid, with store traffic measurement firm ShopperTrak predicting revenues will increase just 2.4%. That forecast is in line with the patchy results reported for the back-to-school season, which saw merchants using deep discounts to boost purchasing even as August sales fell short of estimates for leading mass merchants.

As with past years, eCommerce promises to be a bright spot, with eMarketer’s forecast predicting online sales growth of 15.1%.  Merchants themselves are bullish, with close to a third predicting eCommerce sales will grow more than 20%, according to a survey conducted by the E-Tailing Group and reported by eMarketer.

While these preliminary estimates tend to be highly speculative, when combined with the overall trend of a maturing eCommerce market and resulting increased competition for existing customers, the takeaway for merchants is that they must prepare to compete harder than ever for consumers’ attention and dollars this holiday season. As the final countdown to the season begins, merchants should fine-tune key components of their strategy to maximize potential sales. Among the last-minute to-dos:

Get your house in order when it comes to free shipping. Given that shipping discounts are highly sought after by consumers, nearly 49% of merchants report they’ll increase their free shipping offers this year compared with 2012, according to the eMarketer forecast. Free shipping with no threshold was by far the most successful promotion merchants offered in 2012.

Research on holiday promotions from eMarketer

That doesn’t mean merchants must join the crowds and offer unrestricted free shipping — but it does mean they need to offer shoppers alternative ways to keep shipping costs down and compensate for the lack of free shipping by spotlighting brand value — a central tenet of our year-long “Competing with Amazon” series. Merchants should take the time now to tweak promotions and content design to highlight these alternatives.

Win followers and subscribers now for repeat engagement opportunities later. Merchants should find ways now — before the holiday clamor has begun — to encourage shoppers to stay in touch with brands. They should position email signup invitations prominently and devise incentives for following brands on social media, such as MarketLive merchant Ulla Popken does with a double offer on its home page. Shoppers who follow the brand on Facebook are entered in a drawing for a $250 gift card, while clicks on links shared via social networks or email earn followers and the friends who do the clicking a 20% referral discount.

Engagement invitation example from Ulla Popken

Tune in next Wednesday, October 9, at 10 a.m. PDT for a webinar covering the results of the MarketLive/E-Tailing Group pre-holiday consumer shopping survey. And stay tuned to the blog for further holiday forecasts, research and last-minute tips. Meantime, what are your top last-minute tweaks in advance of the season?