Holiday 2007 Countdown

Mar 01, 2007 10:30 PM  By

No, we’re not suggesting that you break out the Christmas decorations and deck the halls just yet. But if the fourth quarter is your make-or-break season, now is the time to start planning for it. We asked experts in all areas of multichannel commerce — marketing, print production, Web development, circulation, customer service, fulfillment — for help in avoiding preventable last-minute snafus and in learning from the past seasons’ errors. n And even if you’re not a consumer merchant with a big holiday business, you can benefit from their advice: Whenever your peak season is, they’ll help you be prepared for it.

A cataloger for 17 years, Michael Stopka remembers when analyzing results and making plans “was so nice and clean.”

But with the growth of e-commerce, Stopka, the owner of Design Toscano, an Elk Grove Village, IL-based multichannel merchant specializing in home decor and garden accessories, has found it increasingly difficult to plan ahead.

“It’s less scientific. It’s more art now,” he says. Besides affecting his marketing budget, the unpredictable nature of e-commerce wreaks havoc on inventory planning. “Who knows how to order inventory any more?” Stopka says. “It’s more of a retail model than cataloging.”

Nonetheless, planning ahead remains a must for Stopka and other multichannel merchants. And for consumer marketers that count on the fourth quarter to push their business into the black for the year, planning ahead for the holiday season is critical.

In fact, if you’re a fourth-quarter business, you should already have started gearing up for holiday 2007. Even if you’re just buckling down now, however, you should easily be able to catch up and implement strategies and improvements to help boost your revenue and profits this coming season.

Skeptical? You won’t be after you read our month-by-month countdown guide to getting ready for holiday 2007.

JANUARY/FEBRUARY (OR NOW)

January and February were the prime months for analyzing your 2006 results, with a particular eye for unexpected gains or losses. But if you haven’t conducted your analysis yet, you still have time. “Your purpose is to try to find opportunities to expand sales for next year,” says Larry Kavanagh, chief executive of DMinSite, a Cincinnati-based provider of e-commerce services. Some ways to do so:

  • Conduct catalog matchbacks. “Your analysis should be channel agnostic,” Kavanagh says. “A marketing event in one channel will trigger a purchase in another channel.” When you analyze paid-search keywords, for instance, the searches may be coming from prospects who received a catalog in recent weeks. “You need to come up with some rule that acknowledges that your demand channel may be translating into a different channel online,” he says.

    Analyze matchbacks by segments to compare house file response with that of prospects and to see which channels each group is buying from, suggests Tanya Hansel, catalog consultant at Hansel Group Marketing in Austin, TX. “The matchback usually finds twice as many [catalog] orders as we see in the reports. They’re all coming unallocated, without a source code,” she says. “The catalog may be looking okay [in terms of performance], but once you get that matchback, it looks much stronger.”

  • Compare sales trends by channel. “Look at the top 20 items purchased online vs. offline and whether there’s a difference,” Kavanagh says. Then see if you can appropriate any selling tools from the stronger channel for use in the weaker one. For instance, if an item that sold much better in the catalog than online was accompanied by a customer testimonial in the catalog, try including the testimonial on the Web product page.

  • Examine whether each channel performed to expectations. For example, what was the checkout rate at your Website? “Look at the people who actually clicked on ‘proceed to checkout,’ and pay attention to where they got stuck,” Kavanagh says. By fixing glitches that are preventing interested prospects from placing orders, you stand to gain substantially.

    Also, look at the landing pages with the greatest number of visitors and the pages with the highest rates of conversions to purchases. “That can show you nice opportunities to improve,” Kavanagh says.

  • Review your customer service performance. Doing so may lead you to consider handling some functions, such as customer complaint lines, manually rather than via automation, says Debra Ellis, president of Wilson & Ellis Consulting in Barnardsville, NC. “They’re calling you to file a complaint, so you know they’re not happy to begin with. What happens when they’re sitting there punching numbers? By the time they actually get to a person, they’re ready to blow their stack.”

    Ellis also advises searching your records for customers who placed complaints a year ago to see if they ordered again. “If they didn’t, then you lost that customer because you didn’t handle the call well,” she says, and you should make improving your service a priority.

    While you’re at it, review your telephony reports to determine how long callers are kept on hold and how many calls are lost in the process. “A lot of times companies put in cost-cutting controls but never go back and measure the effect on customer retention or future sales,” Ellis notes.

  • If you want to overhaul your Website, start brainstorming now. Allow six months from brainstorming to launch, says William Swartwood, president of Chicago-based Swartwerk Media Design, a Website design and consulting firm. “It always takes longer than people imagine. So many more things come up than you ever thought.”

    MARCH · Hold a strategy meeting to discuss improvements to your print catalog, suggests Glenda Shasho Jones, president of New York-based consultancy Shasho Jones Direct. For example, based on your square-inch analysis, will you be moving to a denser look? Determine how many pages and how many items the catalog will include. Will you be adding a new category of merchandise, such as apparel in a hard-goods catalog? Consider ways to strengthen the brand through creative, as well as changes to typeface or font size, headline style, and the like. By meeting before your creative team starts working on the fall and holiday books, you can avoid having to redesign layouts later.

    When planning strategically, consider what’s going on in the entire catalog business, or even the economy as a whole, and how that might affect your business, Hansel adds. For instance, are other merchants making changes to pricing? Keep an eye on your main competitors throughout the year, and make adjustments accordingly.

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  • Get preliminary quotes for printing to help determine how many catalogs to mail. Hansel advises evaluating a conservative mail plan and a more aggressive plan and calculating the cost of the incremental sales you might gain by mailing more. “Some companies want to break even; others want to build their house file and do more prospecting. It all depends on what the objectives are,” Hansel says. You’ll have time to adjust your circulation plans in the months to come, but it’s important to book your print dates well in advance.

  • Continue your campaign analysis, and test segmentations that you might want to mail to in the holiday period.

  • Evaluate your Web tools, Kavanagh says, even if you’re not planning a major site overhaul. For example, if you’ve identified some high-traffic/low-converting entry pages on your site, do you have the ability to easily split-test, track, and roll out changes to these pages?

  • Start identifying and training contact center supervisors, advises consultant Liz Kislik, president of Liz Kislik Associates in Rockville Centre, NY. Based on your projections of the number of calls you’re likely to receive, determine how many new people you’ll need to hire and who will supervise them. From March through the summer, train supervisors and upgrade workers’ Web skills, Kislik says.

  • Look at ways to reduce shipping costs by getting bids from multiple carriers, says Jeff Mueller, vice president at Sedlak, a Highland Hills, OH-based firm providing distribution consulting, design, and systems integration services. Start by understanding your shipping profile: how many packages can be sent via ground vs. by air. Then bid out the jobs to multiple carriers. Also, consider what additional sorting you can do inhouse that will reduce handling fees.

    APRIL · Finalize your merchandise and marketing plans for the holiday months. By now the buyers should have inventory projections based on historical data and trend forecasts, says Jim Clark, vice president at Chicago-based agency GSP Marketing.

    And if the merchandising team is adding new product categories, it needs to let the fulfillment center staff know, adds Mueller. The fulfillment workers then need to ensure that all necessary storage media and systems will be in place and that the picking area will be large enough to house the new inventory.

  • Communicate plans and dates for scheduled promotions across departments. “If a book drops at a certain time, you better make sure that by the time it hits homes, the Website is up to currency and working together with it,” Clark says. And while you might eventually add e-mail campaigns at the last minute — to help move slow-selling product, for instance — you should provide your contact center and distribution center managers with an idea of when major promotions will hit so that they can prepare.

  • Look for new opportunities or changes in the marketplace that could alter your earler projections. Refer to current database results to identify trends and react accordingly by adjusting circulation or product treatment, Clark says.

    MAY · Get cracking on your fall catalog creative. How long the creative process takes depends partly on how quickly your company can review materials and make adjustments, but mid-May is an ideal time to start on a book to be mailed in August, says consultant Shasho Jones. You need to allow time for the merchandisers to turn over product content to the creative department, then time to create layouts, which will need to be approved. The next step is photography, which also requires approval, then mechanicals before going to the printer. Clark advises allowing eight weeks in all for the creative prepress cycle, then adding another month for press time and mailing.

  • Lock in your press dates for August and September mailings. You should be able to make adjustments as the dates near, but if you wait too long, finding press time might be a challenge, Clark says.

    JUNE · Finalize your shipping/transportation plan.

  • Make sure you have your distribution center configured for the number of items that will be arriving in the peak season. If necessary, find outside space to accommodate the merchandise.

  • Consider purchasing packaging materials with just-in-time delivery so that your distribution center is not burdened by storing the packaging collateral, suggests Sedlak’s Mueller. Ideally you’ll want to house the materials in the supplier’s facility until a day or two before you need them.

  • Plan for more value-added services, such as gift wrapping, monogramming, and gift cards, and how the services can best be carried out in the fulfillment center. Mueller recommends setting up separate stations for each function — a gift card station, a gift box station, a monogramming machine station.

  • Consider using wave management to streamline the fulfillment process from order consolidation to truck loading, Mueller says. In a wave system, order pickers might pull all the West Coast orders first so that they get on the truck first. Or they might pull out all the orders that need to be gift-wrapped, handling that task as a batch.

  • Drill down in the lists you plan to rent to determine which look most promising, consultant Hansel says.

    JULY · If you have made significant changes to your Website, test and begin using your new site functionality, Kavanagh says. As with any other software program or tool, you need to practice with it in order to use it effectively. Test any changes to your checkout process.

    To fully test the site, have as many users as possible try it, including some who have never shopped online, suggests Smartwerk’s Swartwood. Transferring the site from a production server to a live server won’t be instantaneous, he says, so pick a slow period to make the transition. Also, keep in mind that everything doesn’t have to be accomplished at launch. The Internet provides flexibility to roll out features on an ongoing basis, so make a wish list and map out a plan for adding features in future phases.

  • If you’ll need to ramp up your inhouse contact center for the holidays, start interviewing order-takers and customer service representatives, says Kislik. This will allow for a full week of in-classroom training, another week of on-the-floor training, and two weeks of experience before the crunch time hits.

  • If you use an outside contact center, make sure the provider has the most up-to-date training materials and instructions from your company. Transfer over any systems integration that needs to be accomplished before the holiday orders start coming in, Kislik says.

    AUGUST • Finalize your mailing list for fall catalogs. Start pulling house names, identifying groups by key code and following their response, says Clayton Beck, manager, analytic consulting for GSP Marketing. Conduct your merge/purge and run your file through the National Change of Address (NCOA) program about a week before the printer needs the list. Procure prospecting names from co-ops and other rental lists. Though you’ve had your prospecting plan in place for months, you don’t want to pull the actual names too soon — or as Beck says, “You don’t want to mail a stale list.”

  • Order additional packaging supplies, gift boxes, and gift wrap.

    SEPTEMBER · Analyze early results on new products from your catalog mailings, says DMinSite’s Kavanagh. Then take advantage of what’s selling well by adjusting your Website cross-sells, category page and onsite search sequencing, keyword buys, search engine optimization, and e-mail campaigns.

  • Review your ordering picking strategy and SKU slotting, and fine-tune according to early indicators of which products will be hot sellers. Make sure these items are easily accessible and that you have the necessary packaging to ship them in a timely manner.

    OCTOBER · Use decoys and monitoring to make sure your books are arriving at their destinations, Hansel says. You may not be able to correct any delivery problems, but identifying trouble spots can help you adjust your demand projections and, subsequently, your contact center and warehouse staffing levels.

  • Review staffing levels according to early sales trends. Make sure you not only have enough order-takers and customer service reps but also that you can free up supervisors to walk the floor and handle problems as they occur.

  • Monitor calls to make sure your reps are performing up to expectations. If needed, coach individual reps on how to handle customer complaints. “Then go back and make sure they’ve applied the coaching, or you could be damaging the customer relationship,” consultant Kislik says.

  • Keep an eye out for problem merchandise. This includes items that are back-ordered, defective, and arriving broken. Come up with a proactive approach for handling these issues, even if they haven’t occurred (yet). For instance, if a product is defective, make sure the order-takers no longer accept orders for it and know what is available to substitute. Keep lines of communication open between the contact center and other departments, says Kislik, so that everyone is aware of issues as they arise.

    NOVEMBER/DECEMBER · Tweak your marketing programs as your budget allows, Kavanagh suggests. For example, consider resending top-performing e-mail campaigns and extending special offers that work better than planned. Monitor e-mail campaigns and site promotions from competitive companies so that you can adjust your own tactics if need be. This competitive information also can prove helpful in planning for next year.

    As you add or adjust last-minute promotions, be sure to communicate the new information to your fulfillment center. A simple e-mail campaign can disrupt even the most efficient distribution system if it’s not communicated in advance. “Nothing is worse than seeing you have several hundred orders in a backlog because no one knew about the promotion,” Mueller says. Even a few weeks’ notice might be ample time to call a temp agency for extra help immediately following a last-minute campaign.

  • After Thanksgiving, shift your marketing focus away from the mail and toward the Web, suggests Hansel.

  • If you’re receiving more telephone calls than anticipated, add temporary workers to your contact center and ask regular staffers to work a limited amount of overtime. Too much overtime, however, can backfire if reps get burned out, Kislik warns. Resist the temptation to put untrained staffers on the phones, she adds, as that can result in errors.

Willamette, IL-based freelance writer Ann Meyer writes about business for The Chicago Tribune, among other publications.