ONLINE SAKLES – Christmas in September?

Like most print catalogers, Web marketers expect online holiday orders to come in at the last minute. But research indicates that some Web shoppers aim to get a head start on the holidays.

According to a June 1999 survey of 3,800 consumers by affiliate marketing company Linkshare Corp. and online consumer research firm, 28% of respondents plan to begin browsing for holiday gifts online before October, and almost half plan to buy gifts online before November. By contrast, the 100 online merchants surveyed anticipated that only 9% of consumers would start shopping online that early. “This survey demonstrates that Web merchants will need to be both nimble and flexible to meet unexpected challenges,” says Linkshare chairman Stephen Messer.

The study’s findings don’t surprise some veteran online catalogers. “Last year we saw a lot of interest in Web pages geared to holiday and gift-giving early in the season,” says Mark Staudinger, divisional vice president of interactive media at clothing and home products cataloger/retailer Eddie Bauer. “As a result, this year we’ll position ourselves much earlier online than in other distribution channels.”

Whether Redmond, WA-based Eddie Bauer plans to begin selling actual holiday merchandise earlier, or whether it will just promote holiday shopping earlier, Staudinger won’t say.

But multititle cataloger Hanover Direct says it will start putting holiday apparel and gifts merchandise online as soon as the products are in inventory, which should be sometime this month, says chief marketing officer Dick Hoffmann.

“We typically post online merchandise two weeks prior to mailing the print catalogs,” Hoffmann says. Since response to a print catalog generally doesn’t peak until two weeks after the mailing, the early online posting of merchandise gives the $546 million Weehawken, NJ-based Hanover Direct a chance to restock the top-selling products. By starting its online holiday selling season earlier, Hanover expects to better anticipate its inventory needs and avoid running out of the surprise best sellers – regardless of the distribution channel – later in the season.

Converting browsers into buyers

When considering how best to turn online browsers into buyers, keep in mind that shopping preferences differ between men and women. The Linkshare/ survey found that women – 60% of whom typically begin shopping before November – prefer free shipping and handling over other incentives. Conversely, men typically begin shopping closer to December and prefer product discounts. So catalogers may consider targeting women with free shipping and handling offers prior to November, and then adding product discounts in November and December to convert male browsers into buyers.