9 tips to improve your site for the holidays

If you’re looking to make some improvements to your Website before the fall/holiday selling season, there’s still time — but not much. How to decide, then, what to focus on? You can learn from what we’ve seen.

As part of our Mystery Shopping research initiative, the E-tailing Group shops 100 Websites a year. This extensive study enables us to understand industry best practices as well as to set standards for merchandising and service in selling online. These practices and standards can help you drive revenue and increase conversion rates while keeping customers coming back to buy again and again. So keep these suggestions top-of-mind as you gear up for fall — and beyond.


    As the e-commerce channel matures, the customer is growing savvier, forcing i.merchants to continually improve their site experience. Today’s Web shoppers span the gamut from youngsters to seniors; let your audience set the tone for your site. For instance, if you target the senior market, think bigger fonts and clear instructions. Conversely, the youth market may demand more visual branding, plenty of sizzle, and lots of interaction opportunities — and as they surf more frequently than older consumers, they may expect the site to be refreshed more frequently. All of this comes down to a primary rule of marketing: Know your customer and market accordingly.


    Looking objectively at your own site, as well as at the competitive landscape, is imperative. Conduct a robust audit annually to understand how you stack up among the competitors and to smartly position your brand in the best possible light. If you’re looking for an example of a company that reinforces its brand brilliantly online, visit the Crutchfield Website (www.crutchfield.com). A marketer of consumer electronics, Crutchfield competes in a heavily price-driven category. The company reinforces its price-competitiveness as well as its exceptional service message throughout the site, setting the tone for a welcoming shopping experience.


    Because most online shoppers have a specific product or type of product in mind, your navigation must be intuitive and your on-site search in working order. Deploy merchandising in your most heavily trafficked pages, such as search results screens. General merchandiser Macy’s does an excellent job of this, with clear instructions and best-sellers highlighted.

    Don’t forget about the all-important shopping cart. Evaluate ways to streamline the number of clicks to checkout. Our last holiday survey revealed that the average number of clicks to checkout was 4.6, down from 4.93 in 2002. And 24% of the companies visited offered some form of express shopping.

    Last holiday season I bought something online from 1-800-Flowers.com and upon completion of my order was offered a discount on a future purchase. Knowing that the marketer was storing my profile information was enough to convince me to buy four additional gifts! The discount was the teaser, but the time savings sealed the deal.


    Location and relevance are key to increasing your average order size. Be sure that you have thoughtfully selected cross-sells or upsells that are highly relevant, increasing the chances that customers will convert on these impulse recommendations. Possible placements include the product page, the shopping cart, and any post-order communication.


    “Convenience” means many things to many customers. For me it starts with the ability to return products to my location of choice and ideally ends with the ability to buy online and pick up the goods in the store. Just a handful of merchants offer in-store pickup (14% of the 74 marketers surveyed by the E-tailing Group, compared with 72% that accepted in-store returns), largely because it can complicate back-end functions. But those that do — Sears, REI, and Circuit City among them — have been able to increase their sales and customer loyalty. Promoting cross-channel returns and pickup will showcase your capabilities and provide you with a competitive edge. Given that many customers still shop at the last minute, in-store pickup can help you save the sale as you move beyond holiday delivery cut-off dates.


    The back-to-school season can be a great testing ground for promotions. Free shipping and handling will likely continue to bring the biggest boost to shopping online. Just as last year, we expect most merchants to tie conditions such as dollars spent or number of units purchased to receipt of free S&H. But such free shipping offers should only be the starting point; looking beyond this basic offer to build a more robust set of offers is essential. Merchants need an arsenal of promotions from which to serve up the right message to the appropriate audience.


    For most consumer marketers, gift giving is what makes or breaks the fourth quarter. At the very least you should have the basic gifting services, such as gift certificates and gift-wrapping, in place. Also worthwhile: a comprehensive gift center brimming with suggestions that simplify the choices for today’s time-starved shoppers. As the holiday season approaches, giving additional visibility to your gifting capabilities will pay off.


    Serve your customers well and they will return. Be sure that you have taken the time to review the customer service area of your Website. Many merchants forget to revisit this as it becomes less of a focus than selling product — especially during the holiday season. Ensure that your contact information is clear, that top questions asked are highlighted, and that you provide quick links to address key customer concerns that require more in-depth information. Answer all of your e-mail correctly and in a timely fashion — which would ideally be in less than 24 hours. Brand all communication for consistency in messaging.


    There are many ways that i.merchants can innovate. Paying attention to your customers, surveying them periodically, and keeping abreast of industry benchmarks are good places to begin development of your internal wish list. From a customer service perspective, review the potential of live chat to determine if you can support the cost structure as well as the back-end service elements to deliver a positive experience for your customers; ideally converting browsers to buyers.

One-quarter of the 100 merchants we surveyed earlier this year offered live chat. The upside is that a merchant who provides the right support can quickly answer questions and deliver a positive experience for their customers. On average, of the 22 Websites we tested where live chat was in working order, merchants were able to answer product-related questions in 4.78 minutes. In contrast to an average of 25 hours in response to e-mails, this was very timely and opportunistic.

In the end, it’s a combination of the technology, back-end capabilities, and customer service training of personnel that sets a merchant apart. The potential of the Web is unlimited, making it the responsibility of each marketer to understand customers and marry that knowledge with the promise of technology. With any planned innovation, measuring the potential ROI from both a sales and branding perspective is still critical to assess its overall value.

Even if your resources are scarce, begin by broadening your thinking and keeping an ongoing list of Website upgrades. As resources become available, you will have an arsenal from which to evolve and enhance your current site experience.

Lauren Freedman is president of the Chicago-based e-commerce consultancy the E-tailing Group, and the author of It’s Just Shopping.

Site features

Feature/function Online availability
Product page upsells/cross-sells 79%
Average number of products recommended 3.24
Average relevancy of products rating (1-5, 5=best) 4.84
Shopping cart upsells/cross-sells 50%
Average number of products recommended 3.1
Relevancy of products rating (1-5, 5=best) 4.32

Gift Services

Feature/function Online availability
Gift certificate/card 77%
Mailed certificates (among the 77%) 91%
Electronic certificates (among the 77%) 53%
Corporate gifts/program 31%
Gift registry 20%
Gift center 71%
Gift search 22%
Gift suggestions 71%
Gift-wrap/box 50%
Average cost of gift-wrap $4.45
Free gift-wrap (among the 50%) 24%
Gift message 62%
Among the 100 online marketers visited by the E-tailing Group during the fourth quarter of 2003
Source: the e-tailing group 4Q 03 Mystery Shopping

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