One for you, one for me: Encouraging shoppers to gift themselves

In theory, shoppers would seem unlikely to stray from their gift lists this holiday season. After all, the economy remains shaky, and shoppers reportedly plan to keep spending in check; as the season began, the 2011 MarketLive Shopping Survey found that 56 percent of consumers planned to spend about the same as last year, while 37% said they would spend less.

But strong spending on Black Friday and CyberMonday suggests that deal-hungry shoppers are willing to open their pocketbooks for the right products at the right prices. And here’s a hidden pocket of opportunity: many shoppers are on the lookout for items for themselves and their families — not just for gifts.

These bargain-conscious shoppers are taking advantage of holiday deals to purchase products from their own personal wish lists. Nearly six in ten shoppers have set aside holiday shopping money for themselves, according to the National Retail Federation’s holiday forecast — and spending for non-gift items is expected to increase by 16% this year, to $130.43 per person.

Merchants have long messaged self-gifting to after Christmas, when redemption of gift cards rises to the top of the priority list. But this year, why wait? Plenty of merchants are already encouraging shoppers to think of themselves as well as others when it comes to holiday purchasing. A couple of tactics to try::

Promote holiday readiness. Remind shoppers that the holidays aren’t just about gifts for others — the season also brings plenty of festive gatherings to host and attend. Encourage consumers to look their best with a new outfit or festive makeup, highlight party supplies and serving ware, and promote home decor purchases alongside gift ideas. Beauty brand Get Super urges shoppers to get prepared with “mistletoe-ready skin” — reminding site visitors that they need to take care of themselves as well as gift recipients.

Example of self-gifting message from Get Super

Incentivize wish list creation. Wish lists are a great way to encourage shoppers to buy. Not only will wish list creators share their products with friends who might buy, but the creators themselves may find bargains too good to wait for as they browse the site. And after the holidays are over, you can target wish list holders with personalized emails reminding them about their favorite items and encouraging them to return and purchase.

To convince time-pressed shoppers to register and set up their lists, consider offering a one-time discount as an incentive. Or award extra loyalty program points, as apparel retailer American Eagle Outfitters does.

Wish list incentive from American Eagle Outfitters

Musician’s Friend is one of several merchants taking the concept a step further, entering everyone who creates a wishlist into a prize drawing to win all the items on that list.

Wish list example from Musician's Friend


Message well-deserved indulgence. Invite shoppers treat themselves to a reward to compensate for their harried holiday schedules. Prior to Thanksgiving, lingerie site enticed email subscribers with the subject line “Don’t You Deserve the First Gift of the Season?” The message included a free gift-with-purchase offer as well as a promotion for a $20 gift certificate with every purchase of $100 or more which stated that “the first gift should be for yourself.”

Self-gifting message from HerRoom

Ann Taylor’s Thanksgiving weekend messaging similarly urged shoppers to treat themselves, noting that “we’re big believers in in giving & receiving” and encouraging purchases with a 40% discount sitewide.

Self-gifting message from Ann Taylor

Are your customers treating themselves as well as others? How do you encourage non-gift purchasing during the holidays?

Holiday Countdown Tip #4: Pull out the stops on shipping for next week’s revenue peaks

Now that the hype surrounding Black Friday and Cyber Monday has ebbed, online merchants are looking forward to what may actually be the true make-or-break week for holiday sales.

Starting with next Monday, Dec. 12 — dubbed “Green Monday” because of its tendency to attract peak sales — and ending with next Friday, Dec. 16, which is marketed as Free Shipping Day, merchants have reason to expect sales that may well top the weekend after Thanksgiving. “Green Monday” — defined by online measurement firm ComScore as the last Monday with at least 10 days remaining prior to Christmas — has outperformed Black Friday for the past two years, drawing $954 million in online sales in 2010. Free Shipping Day, too, surpassed Black Friday last year, with revenues growing by 61% to  more than $940 million.

The surge in sales synchs with shipping deadlines. Next week is the last opportunity for shoppers to opt for inexpensive or free ground shipping with guaranteed delivery by Christmas. It’s time to pull out the stops when it comes to shipping. Whether on Monday, Friday, or the days in between, consider the following tactics:

  • Develop a free shipping offer that is both compelling to consumers, while still paying attention to your bottom line. The offer should encourage shoppers to spend at least as much as your standard Average Order Value.
  • Make your free shipping offer globally visible — not just in the global header on your eCommerce site, but on social outposts, to mobile shoppers, and in email campaigns.
  • Reinforce the promotion in the shopping cart. Alert shoppers to how much merchandise they need to add to qualify and suggest items that will get them over the threshold.
  • Build creative campaigns around Free Shipping Day. Register on the official consumer site and use the site’s badges and images, which are available at

To view all the tips in this series, visit the Holiday Tips section of the blog:

Social customer service: The heat is on

There’s no denying that social networks are playing a huge role in holiday shopping this year. Four out of five U.S. Internet users visit social networks and blogs, according to Nielsen — and found that 42% of online consumers use those sites to follow at least one retail brand, with the average being six brands. Nielsen found that these users expect to interact heavily with these brands — from posting comments about products or service to purchasing items to using social media as a portal for clicking through to the main eCommerce site.

Graph from showing use of social media for shopping

Of special note: social networks’ role in customer service. A whopping 38% of Facebook users and 55% of Twitter users say they have posted comments about a brand’s customer service, and 43% and 54%, respectively, report having posted comments about product. With such heavy activity, it’s crucial for merchants to maximize the ease of communication on social outposts — especially during these peak weeks of the holiday season.  To provide stellar social service:

Display customer service information prominently on your profile. This tip may seem like a no-brainer, but the fact of the matter is that many leading brands don’t include their “800” customer service number or links to live chat or click-to-call service, if available, on their social outposts. A quick Facebook tour of the top 50 merchants in the Internet Retailer 500 found that just 14% of their sites displayed a specific customer-service link or an “800” phone number.  Don’t follow their lead; rather, incorporate customer service information directly into your Facebook or Twitter page profile information, as Crate & Barrel does with its main profile graphic.

Example of customer service info from Crate & Barrel

Similarly, Kohl’s uses the graphical area outside its Twitter stream to highlight a customer service email for Twitter users and reiterate customer service features such as “hassle-free returns”.

Example of customer service from Kohl's

Set expectations and then staff appropriately. It’s okay if your social outposts aren’t staffed 24/7 — but if that’s the case, go ahead and say so on your “info” page or “about” box so followers can view hours of operation and access alternative contact methods.

During the hours you do commit to staff, understand that expectations are high for instantaneous response to customer service questions and complaints. Train social network monitors to post replies to every question or comment and to do so quickly — even if their first answer must be “I will investigate further”. To compensate for a CyberMonday glitch, Ann Taylor promised a special offer to Facebook followers. When a fan wrote, “When?” the company replied instantly with a forthright response to say the exact timing of the offer was unknown.

Social customer service from Ann Taylor

By contrast, apparel retailer Anthropologie left unanswered a follower’s question about a Black Friday purchase that arrived in the wrong size – potentially creating the impression that the brand is unresponsive to more thorny questions.

Social customer service example

Keep track of off-profile/off-page commentary. Not everyone with an opinion about your brand will bother coming to your social outpost to share it — so be sure to use saved searches for Twitter terms and monitor unofficial Facebook pages for comments. In the stream of search results below, Tweets about Best Buy’s free movie offer — and a product recall — don’t include the “@” sign that would route the posts to the Best Buy page, making them invisible unless staff are monitoring separately for the keywords “best buy”.

Best Buy mentions on Twitter

What are you doing to monitor social customer service this holiday season?

Holiday Countdown Tip #3: Analytics to act on now – on-site search logs

While data and results from the holidays are still weeks away from complete, there is valuable analytics information to be gleaned — and acted on — right now: your on-site search logs.

Making small changes to enable more efficient searching during the holidays can have a potentially large impact. Data from the MarketLive Performance Index shows that fully one-third of all eCommerce site visits include an internal search — and those shoppers who use internal search tend to make purchases at a significantly higher rate than other visitors. According to the index, the conversion rate for on-site search was 7.09% for the second quarter of 2011, nearly 39% higher than the overall average conversion rate.

To improve the efficiency of search, look out for:

  • “Zero results” terms. Add verbiage to product copy to produce a match, or offer alternatives or a redirect to help shoppers connect with the right products; tweak your search tool to correct for misspellings and typos.
  • Most-frequently-used terms. Ensure that the most frequently-searched terms give shoppers enough results by adjusting product copy. If your search functionality allows it, automatically suggest categories to browse in addition to offering a results set of individual items.
  • Holiday concepts. Find a way to connect shoppers with relevant products even if they search for abstract concepts like “holiday sale” or “gifts for her.” Toys R Us redirects searches for “stocking stuffers” to the category of gifts under $10 — a quick solution that avoids having to adjust copy for thousands of items, but gives shoppers plenty of options likely to suit their needs.

Example of search redirect from Toys R Us

To view all the tips in this series, visit the Holiday Tips section of the MarketLive blog:

And be sure to subscribe to for year-round best practices, trend-watching, performance data and more.

Holiday Countdown Tip #2: Promote stellar service via prominent shipping information

With consumers this holiday season on the lookout for bargains, it’s crucial to message the value of excellent customer service. The 2011 MarketLive Consumer Shopping Survey found that 14 percent of shoppers would pay full price for an item if they had an “excellent customer experience”, while 73% of shoppers named free returns as a top promotion — a preference that stresses the importance of holiday shopping that is not only economical, but hassle-free from start to finish.

To emphasize the value of great customer service, display product guarantees and return policies prominently, along with customer service contact information. And most importantly, spotlight shipping. Prominent messaging of delivery options and timelines helps shoppers complete purchases in time and within their budgets.

MarketLive merchant Armani Exchange emphasizes service on its home page with a countdown clock showing the number of days left before the ground shipping cutoff. The message is reinforced by a prominent display of “Holiday Info Guide” on the home page, which promotes not only a free shipping offer, but free returns and exchanges and a “rush exchange” option.

Example of communicating customer service from Armani Exchange


To view all the tips in this series, visit the Holiday Tips section of the MarketLive blog:

And be sure to subscribe to for year-round best practices, trend-watching, performance data and more.

Holiday Countdown Tip #1: Message convenience to win sales

Perhaps not surprisingly given the economy, the number one reason consumers shop online for holiday gifts is to save money. But according to the 2011 MarketLive Consumer Shopping Survey, convenience is almost as important.

Saving money was a top reason to shop online for 79% of consumers, while 77% said saving time was important, and 73% said they shop online to avoid crowds at the mall, according to the survey.

To meet the needs of harried holiday shoppers, promote the convenience of completing purchases online immediately — and fulfill those expectations with robust and prominent customer service information. Technology merchant Newegg is promoting “Hassle Free Holiday Shopping” and backs up the claim with an “Iron Egg” designation for products with free shipping, an extended 60-day period for returns, and a price match guarantee. The promotion reassures shoppers that they’ll receive the lowest available price, and  that recipients will have plenty of time to return the gifts if they so choose.

Example of messaging convenience from NewEgg

To view all the tips in this series, visit the Holiday Tips section of the MarketLive blog:

And be sure to subscribe to for year-round best practices, trend-watching, performance data and more.

Doing well by doing good: Highlighting holiday charity

For merchants keeping an avid eye on the bottom line during the peak gifting season, giving away money may not be top of mind. But promoting charitable giving during the holidays can give brands a boost — not only in terms of customer trust and loyalty, but in increased sales.

Consumers value a brand’s commitment to charitable causes – and are willing to pay for it. According to the 2010 Goodpurpose study from Edelman, 72 percent of U.S. consumers said they’re more willing to give their business to companies that are committed to good causes than to companies that offer lower prices, but without contributing to charity. Moreover, the study found that more than half of consumers are willing to pay more for products if some portion of proceeds goes to charity.

And not only are consumers willing to spend more to help brands help others; they’re willing to promote those brands themselves, Edelman found. According to the survey, 66% of U.S. consumers said they would be willing to promote a brand’s products or services if a charitable cause is involved. With social media and word-of-mouth recommendatons playing an ever-larger role in merchants’ marketing strategies, such willingness to spread the word signals a ripe opportunity.

While it may be too late for large brands to craft and execute on a corporate gifting strategy for this holiday season, boutique and specialty brands can still get in the game — and merchants who do have a charity campaign in place should promote it prominently. Consider the following tactics that both promote good works — and benefit merchants:

Charitable products as merchandising category.
Create a new classification of products around a charitable giving theme and offer to donate a percentage of the proceeds from that category to a related cause. For the month of October, MarketLive merchant Fortunoff donated 20 percent of proceeds from selected pink jewelry — the color affiliated with Breast Cancer Awareness Month — to Breast Cancer Research Foundation, Adelphi NY Statewide Breast Cancer Hotline or the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

Not only did Fortunoff boost the brand’s reputation by allying with the cause of breast cancer awareness — including coverage in O, The Oprah Magazine — but the “Power of Pink” product category gave shoppers a new way to connect with products, along with a strong motivation to purchase.

Example of charitable shopping offer from MarketLive merchant Fortunoff

Tying charitable efforts to social networks.
Tap into the popularity of social causes on social networks by linking contributions to consumers’ word-of-mouth mentions. Reward participants for “liking” or following a brand, sharing a product or promotion with a friend or downloading an app — as Harry and David did for Veterans’ Day with its “Moose Munch” promotion. For every new Facebook “like” the brand received, the food purveyor donated another snack to the troops. Facebook posts about the campaign were shared more than 400 times, and resulted in more than 1,000 donations — not to mention a host of new “likes” for the brand.

Example of charity drive promotion from Harry and David

Connecting charity to the eCommerce site.
The deeper the integration with charitable efforts, the bigger the potential payoff — for both shoppers and brands. Going beyond donating a percentage of proceeds or a social campaign requires a commitment of time and resources, but can result in a significant boost in sales. In tandem with the Salvation Army, J.C. Penney connects holiday shoppers with “online angels” in their area who have requested holiday gifts. After selecting recipient angels, shoppers can browse categories matching their charity gift recipient — toddler boys or senior female, for example – and receive free shipping on their angel order.

Not only does J.C. Penney receive a sales boost from the program — but shoppers already browsing the J.C. Penney site for their angel gifts are likely to discover items for others on their holiday list as well.

Charitable campaign from J.C. Penney

Holiday charity campaign from J.C. Penney

How are your promoting charitable efforts to online holiday shoppers this season? How does your giving campaign benefit charities — and your business?

Performance Index: Strong Thanksgiving weekend performance for mid-market merchants

It’s official: the Thanksgiving weekend resulted in stellar performance for online merchants. The results are especially impressive for mid-market merchants, who thrived despite heavy competition from top national bricks-and-mortar retailers and, of course, Amazon.

Unlike those behemoths, MarketLive’s mid-market merchants — whose aggregate data is reported in the MarketLive Performance Index — expressed early on that their holiday strategy would have an increased focus on the bottom line, leading to:

  • Smarter investing of their tight marketing budgets – not overspending to drive holiday traffic
  • Avoidance of deep discounting in favor of value driven merchandising
  • Limited or conditional “Free Shipping” offers

Key performance indicators from the Thanksgiving weekend reflected this tightly-focused approach. While site traffic compared to 2010 was relatively flat for the official first week of the holiday season, revenue was up 14.6% on Thanksgiving Day, 15% on Black Friday, and a whopping 26% on CyberMonday. By comparison, online-measurement firm ComScore reported a 21% jump industry-wide in year-over-year spending on Cyber Monday.

In addition, Index merchants saw average site conversion top out at 8.3% on Cyber Monday, a 12% increase over 2010, while average order value increased by 8% for the week.

The trick for merchants of all sizes moving forward will be to keep the momentum going throughout the holiday season. reported that fully 12.6% of shoppers — the highest percentage ever — have now completely finished their holiday shopping, with some buyers reporting having already used up their gift budget. With continuing uncertainty over the economy driving Black Friday’s zeal for deals, merchants may find sales tapering off when the discounts end.

To keep shoppers coming back, merchants should considering adapting popular strategies from the weekend for use throughout the season. A few standout trends we spotted:

Find a way to fulfill expectations for free shipping. While eliminating shipping charges altogether for the remainder of the season is impractical for most merchants, there are ways to offer shoppers the opportunity to nab this sought-after discount without doing deep damage to the bottom line. Consider:

  • Limited-time offers for upcoming red-letter shopping days, including Free Shipping Day on Friday, Dec. 16, and “green Monday,” the second Monday in December, which last year outranked Black Friday for online sales, according to ComScore.
  • Offers keyed to delivery timelines and shipping cutoff dates. Merchants should already feature shipping calendars prominently on their sites, as MarketLive merchant Sundance Catalog does in its universal footer. To help shoppers cross the finish line in time, promote free shipping with or without a threshold in the final days leading up to standard shipping deadlines.
    Holiday example from Sundance

Offer gifts upon gifts. A number of merchants offered free gifts with purchase – a method that protects product pricing and also benefits shoppers, who get two items for the price of one and can potentially cross two names off their gift list with a single purchase. For CyberMonday, MarketLive merchant Helzberg offered a free Kindle with any purchase of $499 or more — a sought-after item that’s sure to appeal to someone on a buyer’s gift list.

Holiday example from Helzberg

Promote savings across customer touchpoints. With shoppers flocking both to stores as well as to their computers throughout the weekend, online merchants with bricks-and-mortar locations messaged the options clearly online and featured prominent links to in-store buying aids such as weekly shopping ads. Mega-retailer Walmart balanced promotion of offline and online specials on Black Friday morning by featuring its in-store sales, which began at midnight and 8 a.m. local time, with a link to its weekly ad. Online shoppers could browse those sale items available through the Web site as well as view items qualifying for free shipping — and a banner notified them that “cyber week” would kick off an entirely new savings for the coming week.

Holiday example from Wal Mart

What Black Friday and CyberMonday tactics worked for you? How do you predict sales will shape up for the remainder of the season?

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?

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?