ultimate ecommerce holiday guide

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

~ Benjamin Franklin

 

It’s that time of year again… No, not the holiday season — the leaves on the trees are still green for Pete’s sake! We’re talking about the time of year before that time of year, when ecommerce store owners and retailers start preparing for the single greatest shopping frenzy on the calendar.

The holiday shopping season — in particular October, November, and December — is easily the largest sales quarter year after year. Holiday shoppers purchase an average of 16 gifts (as of 2018) and of those shoppers, 55% plan to buy at least some if not all of those gifts online.

where consumers plan to shop for the holidays

Source: National Retail Federation

With Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Super Saturday (the last Saturday before Christmas, a.k.a., “Panic Saturday”), the Q4 months can make or break your entire annual profits — and even next year’s profits, considering that 77% of holiday shoppers purchase from the same retailers as the year before.

But with all the extra activity and high stakes, a lot of ecommerce owners struggle to stay on top of everything — especially when they have their personal holidays at the same time. So we thought it’d help to organize this handy checklist, so you can stay on schedule without anything falling through the cracks. Below, you’ll find our step-by-step ecommerce holiday guide to staying on the ball through the next few months.

 

Right Now

There’s no better time to start than the present. In the calm before the storm, double-check that everything is in working condition. You won’t have another free moment for awhile to do regular maintenance.

 

Optimize Site

If you’re selling from your own online store, make sure it’s optimized before the holiday rush. If you already know of some bugs, now’s the time to fix them. If not, you might want to run an audit so there are no surprises later.

Otherwise, you can still “tidy up.” Is there any user feedback you’ve been meaning to address? You can always put out a survey to see if users have any complaints.

 

Mobile Optimization

According to an eMarketer report, mobile sales increased 32.6% in 2018, making up almost half (44%) of all online sales. If your mobile sales options are suboptimal, you’re going to lose sales to competitors with an easier-to-use mobile interface. Optimizing the mobile experience may take time, so the sooner you start, the better.

 

Check Last Year’s Analytics

Although there’s no way to predict the future, last year’s analytics are the next best thing. Because shopping behavior during the holidays is different from the rest of the year, the best way to prepare is to look at last year’s shopping statistics. In particular:

  • Product performance — Find which products were in demand for the holidays, and which weren’t.
  • Deal performance — Did any deals or promotions have a drastic effect on sales? Remember to compare a product’s performance before and after the promotion.
  • Stock levels — It’s important to accurately estimate how many items of each product you’ll likely sell so you can adequately stock up beforehand.
  • Biggest shopping days — Each store, shopper group, and product category has their own best and worst shopping days during the holiday season. Find your own personal “Cyber Mondays” to fine-tune your promotion strategies.

 

Gift-wrapping Logistics

If you handle a lot of the shipping and inventory management yourself, you might want to look into offering a gift-wrapping service. These services are popular during the holidays, and much-appreciated by your shoppers. It’ll take some research to see if it’s viable for your company, so do the leg work now before you get busier.

 

October

Next up on our ecommerce holiday guide is October. It’s a unique junction where you’re simultaneously preparing for the holidays, actively selling for Halloween, and unloading unwanted back-to-school sales inventory.

The truth is, holiday shopping has already begun: according to the NRF, 40% of consumers say they start holiday shopping before Halloween. On the bright side, the October sales — including Halloween — are still slower than what’s to come, making the first week or two a good time to strategize and prepare.

holiday shopper timeline

Source: National Retail Federation

 

Stock up

As we mentioned in our retailer tips for Thanksgiving weekend, reorder all your seasonal inventory as soon as possible so you don’t have to worry about it until next year. You’ll be getting a lot of first-time visitors, so the last thing you want is to scare them away forever with an “out of stock” message.

Expert tips:

  • Use last year’s analytics for a more accurate estimate on how much to buy.
  • Have a back-up plan in case you run out of stock early, i.e., a dropshipper or partnership with another store.
  • Stock up all the way through to mid-January. You don’t want to be left with an empty warehouse when the new year starts.

 

“We Haven’t Heard from You in Awhile” Emails

Email is one of the strongest drivers of holiday ecommerce sales: according to Shopify, email accounted for 24% of sales during 2018 Thanksgiving holiday. But before you jump into your more promotional email campaigns (explained below), start out with a soft reminder.

Remind your past customers about your store in early October, before they start thinking about holiday shopping. If you come right out of the gate pitching your products, it makes you seem too salesy — give them a gentle reminder now so that it’s easier to break the ice later with more promotional emails.

The best way to do it is with a “We Haven’t Heard from You in Awhile” email to previous customers. If they have an abandoned cart on their account, an email reminder for that is even better!

 

Plan Deals

According to the NRF, 95% of holiday shoppers say price discounts are the best way to get them to shop somewhere new. It’s your promos as much as your products that attracts customers during the holidays.

That’s why you want to plan out your deals carefully beforehand. Take the first week or two of October to research holiday trends and access your sales analytics from last year. Create a battle plan with:

  • what products to discount
  • what’s the optimal price for both you and your shoppers
  • when to run the deals to attract the most customers
  • how to promote the deals (social media, your blog, influencers, website ads, paid ads)
  • when to promote deals

It’s also worth looking into this year’s hot items. The products with the most demand change every year, but the trouble is they’re not always easy to predict until it’s too late. Try researching the expert recommendations for this year and see if any are worth the gamble.

Expert tips:

  • Save your best deals for Thanksgiving weekend, and your second-best deals for the first two weeks of December (and Super Saturday).
  • October holidays deals are just for early-bird shoppers, so you don’t have to blow anyone away with crazy promotions.
  • Use an automated scheduling service to post ads or social media posts; that way you never have to worry about forgetting. If you schedule everything during the quiet period before November, that’s one less thing to worry about when things get hectic.

 

(Mid October) Promote Deals

Once you have your promotion strategy planned out, you can get started right away. You’ll want to start advertising holiday deals around the middle of October in addition to your Halloween promotions.

Throughout the entire holiday season, you want to promote deals in your highest-traffic areas. You can check our complete list of recommendations in our guide to Thanksgiving Weekend.

 

Prepare Backlog of Holiday Content

Everything changes during the holiday season, even your content strategy. For November and December, online retailers do well to post content related to shopping or holidays (or both). If you’re trying to attract shoppers, offer them the content they’re looking for:

  • gift guides
  • product reviews
  • comparison charts
  • holiday-themed “fun” pieces

If you’re trying to plan ahead and stay organized, your best bet is to create a backlog of holiday content as soon as possible. The next couple of months can get busy, so the more responsibilities you can take care of before, the more time you’ll have later when you need it most.

 

Don’t Neglect Halloween

At any other time of the year, Halloween would be a standalone sales event. It’s only when it comes right before the largest sales time of the year that its significance is forgotten.

But don’t neglect a Halloween sales strategy to prepare for the winter holidays — it’s best to do both! Although this guide is just about the winter holiday shopping, you can read our advice for Halloween selling in some earlier guides. We’ve already detailed both the best products to sell during Halloween and how to market your online store during Halloween.

 

November

Here it is: what you’ve been preparing for. November marks the beginning of the upswing for holiday sales as well as the peak shopping days — including Black Friday and Cyber Monday, two of the biggest online shopping days of the entire year. November is the month in our ecommerce holiday guide when you put into practice everything you’ve been planning these last few weeks.

 

Promote Gift Cards

No matter what industry you’re in, chances are your customers still want gift cards. An RTF study found that 60% of people would like to receive gift cards as a gift — the highest ranked option.

what do holiday shoppers want to buy

Source: National Retail Federation

Gift cards are great for both retailers and customers. For one thing, they solve a pain point for customers with tough-to-shop-for people on their lists. But they’re also versatile when it comes to prices as well as product categories: shoppers can spend a lot or a little, and they work with pretty much any type of store.

Expert Tips:

  • Promote your gift card deals alongside your other deals. Mention them in email newsletters, post about them on social media, set aside some real estate on your home page, and maybe even buy some paid ads just for them.

 

(Early November) Reevaluate Product Deals

If you’ve been following our checklist, you’ve already outlined your deal strategy all the way through winter. It’s good to think ahead, but there’s only so much you can guess about the future. So during early November, plan on reevaluating your strategy to make sure everything’s going as planned, and modify it where necessary.

Expert Tips:

  • Check to see if the products you thought would sell are actually selling. You may need to readjust your pricing a bit at this point in time — lowering the price of underperforming products and raising the price of unexpected best-sellers.
  • This is also your last chance to restock on inventory before it starts flying off the shelves. Check to see that you’re initial estimates were accurate, or if you need to order extra.

 

Ramp Up Deal Promotion

The closer you get to Thanksgiving, the more you want to ramp up your deal promotions. At the very least, increase the frequency that your promotions are posted, but you can also go the extra mile with special techniques to heighten urgency.

One of the most popular of these sales techniques is the ticking clock: include a real-time countdown in your promotions until the time the deal starts (or, once the deal starts, count down until it’s over). Ticking clocks help shoppers remember when your deals are active, so they can make a note to visit you during the Thanksgiving weekend.

Another technique is flash sales — surprise, often quick, sales that spring up unexpectedly. This is a good strategy to get people to check your site often, just in case there’s a flash sale happening when they’re online. Just don’t offer any deals that will overshadow Thanksgiving Weekend.

 

Customize Order Messages with Holiday Themes

Before the sales really start coming in, customize your order correspondence to fit the holidays. Everyone is in a festive mood when they shop and when deliveries arrive; even though it’s optional, customers usually appreciate when you share in the spirit too.

In particular, add holiday messages and graphics to your:

  • order confirmation emails
  • packing receipts
  • review request emails

Expert Tips:

  • The areas above also make great advertising opportunities. In order confirmation emails, you can also include product recommendations or mention upcoming deals. If the customer bought from you once, it means they’re likely to buy from you again.
  • A best practice for branding all year round is to include your logo on these messages. If you haven’t yet, add yours now.

 

(Thanksgiving Weekend) Be Active on Social Media

It’s finally here. Game day. The moment you’ve been preparing for. So what do you do?

The most important thing is to just be available, for your shoppers as well as your staff. That usually means being active on social media from Thanksgiving evening and Black Friday, all the way through to Cyber Monday. (Don’t stop there, though — the week after Thanksgiving is also a heightened sales time compared to normal.)

Assume that your customers are online shopping at this time and be present on social media in case they need any assistance. You should also take a more proactive approach, sending out periodic reminders that your deals are happening right now and recommending products. Different people are online at different times, so don’t shy away from reposting reminders.

As an ecommerce brand, pay particular attention to Cyber Monday — according to Deloitte, it accounts for almost half (47%) of all online sales during Thanksgiving weekend.

thanksgiving week shopper timeline

Source: Deloitte

 

December

Holiday shopping in December is marked by a couple “final waves” of shoppers, including a last-minute charge from the procrastinating shoppers the week before Christmas. If you’ve already made the necessary preparations, you can cruise-control December while you handle your own personal holidays — just take care of the final shoppers.

 

Accommodate the “Final Waves”

Holiday shopping peaks at Thanksgiving weekend, but the first two weeks of December are still some of the strongest sales days compared to the rest of the year. As we mentioned above, you’ll want to reserve some “second string” deals for early December — not as appealing as your Thanksgiving Weekend deals, but appealing enough to steal holiday shoppers from your competitors.

Specifically, offer deals to the last-minute shoppers. The NRF shows that 61% of all shoppers buy something between December 18 and December 24, even if they’ve already completed the bulk of their gift shopping.

last minute holiday shoppers timeline

Source: National Retail Federation

 

January

Well, you’ve made it… mostly. The holiday shopping is done, and you don’t have to think about another promotion until President’s Day. But while the shopping spree is finished, the aftermath is not. January is a month for tying up loose ends in our ecommerce monthly guide.

 

Boost customer service

Be prepared for gift returns, complaints, exchanges, and all the other interactions with customers without the fun of making money. If you’ve hired some extra customer service help for the holiday shopping, you may want to extend their contracts through January so they can help with all the returns.

 

Conclusion

The holiday shopping season is certainly a challenge, no matter how big your company is. Once you’ve checked everything on our ecommerce holiday guide, you should start looking for more ways to prepare and plan such as extra resources or software.

If you find yourself overwhelmed, you can also find extra help with automated ecommerce software like Ecomdash. Our software automates much of the ecommerce process — updating stock levels, managing multiple channels, consolidating product listings so you only have to edit them once — which frees up your time for more important, high-level business planning. Take a look at how ecomdash can maximize your holiday sales now.

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