When it comes to getting ready for the fourth-quarter gift-giving season, many consumer Web and catalog merchants start planning on Dec. 26 for the next year. For other marketers, late summer is the crunch time when they finalize their promotions, end-of-year calendars, and feature products.

Regardless of your timetable, if you sell gifts, you should be working hard to evolve your online offering and integrate it into a broader cross-channel experience. Gifting online is robust, and consumers have responded by giving a greater share of wallet to their online holiday spending. In fact, according to Goldman Sachs, Harris Interactive, and Nielsen/NetRatings estimates, last holiday season U.S. shoppers spent $23.2 billion online (not including travel expenditures), up 25% from $18.5 billion in 2003. Clearly purchasing gifts online has become standard behavior.

But has it become standard behavior among visitors to your site? If you’d like to persuade more consumers to buy gifts from your site, regardless of the season, you need to make gift-giving less of a chore and more of a pleasure — or at least make the process easier and quicker. Below are eight suggestions to help boost your gift sales.

  1. Provide enough pertinent product information

    Selling online starts with building a comprehensive product page, and in gifting nobody does it better than Godiva. The upscale chocolatier starts by showcasing its beautifully packaged product, including a visual of what’s inside. Tasteful icons support further queries with the option to see the product contents and click on larger photos. I particularly like the added touch of being able to view a close-up of the packaging, another element that sets Godiva apart. As holidays tend to attract harried shoppers, the all-important shipping information is front and center. Live assistance is available including hours of operation for those who have further questions regarding their order. And to gain orders from those who may have forgotten all about upcoming holidays, the Website dedicates significant banner real estate to reminders of the actual holiday dates, complete with a link to start shopping.

  2. Create a gift center

    A section of the site devoted to — you guessed it, gift-giving — the gift center is the starting point for most customers when it comes to online gifting. A link should be prominently displayed on the home page — on the top navigation bar, for example. Your messaging must be crisp, catering to a broad range of shoppers. Home Depot, for one, incorporates tools that assist the shopper in purchasing by occasion, price point, or recipient. Rounding out the package, the home products superstore features multichannel capabilities such as a gift registry and gift cards. Given that gifting is not core to its business model, Home Depot has certainly dedicated significant real estate to gift givers!

    Apparel retailer Nordstrom takes gifting one step further. In addition to letting you shop by recipient (male, female, teen, child), it offers a gift finder tool that assists the gift-challenged by suggesting products based on gender, price, and lifestyle. Home decor cataloger/retailer Crate & Barrel also creatively wraps things up by enabling gift-givers to browse by occasion (housewarming, birthday, anniversary, and wedding/shower in addition to holidays) and by recipient (“the hosts,” “the food lover,” “the decorator”) as well as by price.

    The gift center is also a great place to showcase the gamut of your gift services. Food merchant Harry and David offers an array of conveniences that support a variety of needs. These range from sending personalized greetings to the My Giftlist function, which lets users create an address book of past and potential recipients and review past orders. An inclusive tool like this enables shoppers to take care of a significant portion of their holiday shopping in one fell swoop — a boon to harried gift-givers and to you!

  3. Display gift suggestions

    Visual suggestions help to convert the undecided and also spur impulse purchasing. Jeweler Blue Nile features just a handful of lovingly photographed items on the home page of its gift center. Brief but evocative captions complement the four smaller images (“personalize a gift to create a keepsake,” “guaranteed to set her apart from the crowd”). Although the images take center stage — and rightfully so — the page also includes links to gift-giving guides, selections by price, shipping information, critical holiday deadlines, and the 30-day refund policy.

  4. Sell gift cards

    Three out of four Americans purchased at least one gift card last year, according to the Washington-based National Retail Federation, so it’s not surprising that multichannel merchants are maximizing the potential of this tool online. Research that my company, The E-tailing Group, conducted in conjunction with Fry and ComScore Networks found that 65% of the 900 consumers surveyed prefer that a gift card can be purchased and redeemed across all channels.

    Apparel, home decor, and outdoor gear merchant L.L. Bean offers two types of gift certificates, both of which can be redeemed online, via mail, in store, or via the call center. The electronic version is delivered within hours via e-mail, while the paper version is delivered via mail within a week. But either type is, as Bean’s Website copy states, “the gift that always fits.”

  5. Make it easy to send gifts to multiple recipients

    Tiffany & Co. elegantly embraces multiple ship-tos, making it easy to quickly send gifts to numerous friends and family. The high-end jewelry and gifts merchant’s shopping cart makes use of an online address book and shows an image of each item alongside the recipient’s name and address so that shoppers buying multiple gifts can be sure of sending the correct product to each recipient.

  6. Offer a “hold and ship” option

    Merchants often encourage consumers to buy early — even going so far as to offer discounts or free shipping to those who order by a certain date — in part to lock up holiday sales and even out the back-end flow. But a gift-giver who wants to have the merchant ship the present directly to the recipient isn’t likely to order early unless the merchant offers a “hold and ship” service like that provided by 1-800-Flowers.com. The 1-800-Flowers site takes shoppers down a three-step path where they pick product, choose a recipient, and then select a delivery date.

    Wine.com also supports buying when you want. It promotes its “shop now, ship later” service at the top of its home page, throughout the rest of the site, and with timely e-mail promotions throughout the holiday season.

  7. Set up a corporate gifting program

    Devoting a separate destination to the needs of corporate customers can pay off royally. Omaha Steaks embraces this segment with a microsite, accessible via the core Website, that offers volume pricing, standard and customized incentive programs, and other features relevant to corporate buyers. If you do decide to make a push for corporate gift buyers, keep in mind that they typically have more complex needs than consumer customers. Many companies have found it best to dedicate a team of service reps for large-order customers; others find that offering personalization services is key to landing accounts. (See “Secrets to corporate sales success,” January 2004 issue.)

  8. Emphasize last-minute gifting options

    Web merchants have done an excellent job of addressing the last-minute shopper. RedEnvelope was one of the first online marketers to highlight express or overnight gifts, dedicating an entire section of its Website to products that can be delivered the next business day. Customers who seek out these items are generally people ready to spend and willing to pay a premium for convenience — certainly a desirable audience to attract.

If you have stores, don’t neglect to promote them as a shopping option for procrastinators. Last year general merchandise giant J.C. Penney sent an e-mail on Dec. 21 reminding recipients that even if they’d missed the cut-off date for holiday shipping, Penney had “over 1,000 stores to shop. Get it all in time and under the tree. Just stop by one of our stores nationwide to finish your holiday shopping fast.” The e-mail included the store hours and a link to a J.C. Penney store locator, along with links to gift suggestions.

Implementing these suggestions before the holiday shopping frenzy gets under way should help you grow your gift sales. But bear in mind that they’re no substitute for the basics, such as superior site navigation, order processing, and all-around service.

Day-in day-out excellence is the best gift you can give Website visitors; everything else is the wrapping around the gift.

Lauren Freedman is president of The E-tailing Group, a Chicago-based provider of online strategic and marketing services, and the author of It’s Just Shopping.


Start with a robust gift center that showcases your brand and product assortment.

Allow the customer to quickly edit your product mix, zeroing in on gifts ideal for those on his shopping list.

Include comprehensive information on products and related gifting services in order to offer a one-stop product page for the harried gift-giver.

Offer both electronic and paper gift cards/certificates redeemable across all channels.

Provide innovative category-centric gifting tools where appropriate including personalized cards, e-announcements, and ship-and-hold capabilities.

Make it as simple for shoppers to buy for multiple recipients as it is to buy for one recipient.

Think last-minute, serving up critical customer service information and messaging that suggests a sense of urgency.

Wisely promote all gifting tools and optimize seasonal selling on a year-round basis.

Use e-mail in support of these initiatives, driving traffic directly to gifting destinations.

Take advantage of the Website and e-mail to support your retail channel for both instore pickup and last-minute gifting needs.


Service 4Q 2004 4Q 2003
Gift certificates/card 86% 77% (percentage offering)
Gift suggestions 79% 71%
Gift center 75% 71%
Gift message available 69% 62%
Gift wrap/box 55% 50%
Corporate gift program 41% 31%
Multiple ship-to addresses 38% NA
Gift registry 22% 20%
Hold gifts to ship later 7% NA
Source: The E-tailing Group, based on 100 consumer sites visited per quarter

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