Last-Minute Holiday Checklist

The holiday season is upon us, but it’s not too late to make sure your Website is visitor-friendly and trouble-free. Below, suggestions for ensuring that your site is ready for what will hopefully be a holiday rush.

  1. Evaluate your home page. “Christmastime is the time to update your home page with seasonal offers and to make it as inviting as possible to customers,” says Web marketing expert Amy Africa, president of Williston, VT-based consultancy Creative Results. And since the number of repeat buyers and visitors rises during the holidays, “keeping your home page fresh, new, and exciting is important.” So change your featured merchandise and home-page highlights often.
    Gifts cataloger Eziba, which launched its redesigned Website in August, already spruced up its home page, says John Voelcker, vice president of business development for the North Adams, MA-based company. Eziba revamped its home page from a screen filled with links and icons for a myriad of site features to one displaying just four windows — for shopping, catalog requests, content about where merchandise is sourced, and promotions and sales. “It’s a much cleaner page and leads to both product and content,” Voelcker says.
  2. Test the load times of your site. “Catalogers should place orders on their sites four to six times a day to see what their customers are going through and if they’re experiencing any problems,” Africa says.
  3. Test the search function. The search function can crash if too many people are on a site searching at the same time. So test your search function a few times a day as well.
  4. Have site backup in the event of problems such as a site crash or a power failure. Often for as little as $50 a month, a host such as Dell or IBM will provide backup from October through January. You can also buy your own backup server. Chicago-based cataloger Creative Irish Gifts purchased a second server after experiencing slowdowns during the previous holiday season. “Last year we had high traffic and not enough server capacity, so we have a new server this year that is bigger and faster,” says chief operating officer Rory O’Connor. “If one goes down, the other should be up until we can get them both going again.” He’s quick to add, “But we have never had a server go down without our taking it down for maintenance work.”
  5. Feature your 800-number throughout the site, ideally on every page. “Even companies that do not normally receive orders via the phone should offer a phone number during the holidays as a customer service feature, since shoppers have a lot of questions this time of year,” Africa says. Eziba, for example, trained three staffers to handle service issues and phone orders in case the company’s outsourced call center becomes overwhelmed or experiences problems during the busy holiday season.
  6. Offer on your site a form that allows customers to send you a quick e-mail — and respond promptly. “Many companies pride themselves on a 24-hour turnaround for replying to e-mails, but that’s too long,” Africa says. She’s found that customers want a response within two hours and “hate anything over six hours. Even if you can’t answer the e-mail right away, you should have an autoresponse [to acknowledge that the e-mail has been received], with a message saying that if the customer hasn’t received a reply within a day or two, he should contact the company using a specific phone number.” Creative Irish Gifts assigns two full-time employees to handle the approximately 50 e-mail inquiries that it receives from customers every day. “We promise a 24-hour turnaround, but it’s usually a lot less than that,” O’Connor says. “Provided that we’ve received an e-mail during business hours, we usually answer within just a few hours.”
  7. Be precise about delivery options. That includes displaying the last day that customers can order to receive a gift in time for Christmas. The information should be on the home page, Africa says, and maybe even post a banner “ad” on your site to call attention to last-minute shipping options.
  8. Create “file not found” pages. If something goes wrong with your site, you can use your own “file not found” page to let customers know the site is temporarily unavailable. This way, you don’t have to rely on the Internet service provider to display an error page. “If the site is down for maintenance or is overloaded, your message can ask for the e-mail addresses of customers, whom you can contact when the site is back up,” Africa says. “One large clothing company did this and collected 18,000 e-mail addresses in the three hours its site was down.”
  9. Don’t schedule maintenance during peak shopping hours. “Do maintenance at 2 a.m. Eastern time and midweek instead of the weekend,” Africa says. “Weekend and nighttime traffic increases during the holidays.”

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