It's the most wonderful time of the year. But for retailers, a successful holiday period doesn't come without a lot of preparation, with some businesses starting their readiness plans before the holiday lights and decorations have been taken down.
According to the National Retail Federation, holiday sales amounted to $579.8 billion last year, up 3 percent from 2011. Since, as the federation notes, holiday sales can represent up to 40 percent of retailers' annual sales, organizations cannot take any risks and be unprepared for this busy period.
While holiday preparedness strategies vary between retailers, one thing is certain-starting early is the key to having everything ready. Many retailers try to entice people into their stores-whether brick-and-mortar or online-with festive decorations, but this is just the very tip of the iceberg. It's what organizations do on the back end and what isn't necessarily visible that will mostly impact a shopper's experience and make the difference between a one-time customer and a loyal advocate.
Savvy retailers start preparing for the holidays early on, but there're still things that can be done to have a successful holiday season. In order to help retailers with their final preparedness plans, 1to1 Media has prepared this checklist. It's never too late to start ticking items off your list!
Plan your holiday strategy
Previous experiences, both successes and failures, can unearth some important learnings, showing retailers what they should emphasize and what they should steer clear of. A holiday preparedness strategy shouldn't be an ad-hoc and quickly drawn out plan. Instead, a lot of thought needs to be put into making sure that everything goes as smoothly as possible and the brand is well prepared to deal with any eventualities.
- Learn from Christmases past: Savvy retailers are constantly learning from their experiences, making sure they reiterate successes and find solutions to avoid repeating failures. These forward-thinking business leaders insist on a thorough analysis of their holiday season. Best Buy Canada, for example, kicks off its holiday planning with a thorough review of the previous season, helping the company outline successes and pinpoint areas of improvement, explains Robert Pearson, the brand's vice president of ecommerce. Dominique Schurman, CEO of the Papyrus' owner, Schurman Retail Group, says holiday preparations start early, with the first step being to analyze sales data to make a retail plan for the coming year.
- Invest in forecasts: There is no guarantee that history will repeat itself, but being unprepared is not an option for retailers. It would be a major pity for retailers to run out of a popular item, leading to lost sales and a negative customer experience. "Retailers must pay extra special attention to inventory planning well in advance of the holidays," stresses Doug Sternberg, executive vice president of client strategy at Dotcom Distribution. Further, organizations need to make sure their orders will arrive in time for the busy season so that they can deliver on their promises. "Late arriving goods put added pressure on your operation by potentially taking personnel away from packing and shipping so that they can focus on receiving. Members-only online retailer Beyond the Rack changes its strategy for the holidays to make sure it can deliver to customers in time for the holidays. Kevin Murphy, the organization's senior director for business intelligence and CRM, explains that Beyond the Rack normally purchases items after they've been sold, but for the second year running will be making purchases before putting certain items up for sale. "We cannot risk dealing with vendors who might be late in shipping," he says.
- Make the necessary changes: Change might be daunting, especially if it's carried out late in the day and can make a difference between a successful holiday period and a complete flop. But organizations cannot allow fear to stop them from making these changes. Customers might be forgiving the first time around but expect improvements after that.
- Cater for the early bird: According to the National Retail Federation, 40 percent of customers start their holiday shopping before Halloween. While this might sound like an early start, retailers cannot risk being left out and need to make sure they're front-of-mind with these early shoppers. Therefore, even if holiday-related advertising hasn't yet kicked off, retailers should keep shopping habits in mind when designing their shelves, putting gifts and other holiday related items where they can be seen.
- Be informative: Customers don't like wasting time, especially during the hectic holiday season. Retailers should therefore make sure to have clear information available to potential shoppers, notes Chad White, principal of marketing research at ExactTarget. For example, opening hours, especially if these are going to change, and new merchandise arrivals can be important details for customers.
Invest in Santa's elves-your employees
Increased business during the holiday season means that many companies employ seasonal staff. But just because these employees will only be working for a short period of time doesn't mean that they're not as important as year-round staff. Customers expect a great service and if a single front-liner hasn't been effectively trained to deliver, it can spell disaster for the whole company. As Susan Ho, director of operations strategy at Fab.com, notes, a successful holiday season starts with hiring the right people, then giving them the right resources and training.
- Properly train seasonal workers: These short-term workers need to be up to speed with company policies and know how to deal with all customer issues, ensuring that problems are stemmed at the bud and clients leave with their holiday spirit intact. Jacob Jaber, CEO of San Francisco-based Philz Coffee, says it's imperative to train even short-term workers to represent the brand in the same way as permanent employees.
- Streamline holiday training: Especially because seasonal employees will only be with the company for a short while, their onboarding needs to be as efficient and cost-effective as possible. However, companies still need to make sure that a shorter training period doesn't mean less efficient workers.
- Equip employees with data: Showrooming is a stark reality for brick-and-mortar stores and it can only be combated by delivering a great experience. Giving associates all the information they need about products and even about customer needs and preferences will allow them to engage consumers in discussion, notes Branden Jenkins, general manager of retail at NetSuite. "They need a mobile device to access the information and give it to the consumer and also provide the endless aisle experience," he says.
- Provide real-time information in the contact center: Contact center agents need to have the right information on hand to be able to answer customers' questions. It is therefore essential that they're up to date with any offers sent to customers over different channels.
- Incite workers with gamification: Anna Convery, executive vice president of sales and marketing at OpenSpan Inc., notes that the majority of seasonal employees are Millennials who enjoy gamification. Therefore organizations should use gaming techniques to achieve specific levels of performance from groups of seasonal agents. "Having real-time performance guidance and access to cross-sell and up-sell metrics enables agents to see where they're performance-wise and what they need to do to meet or exceed their targets for performance bonuses," she says.
Prepare online for a sales rush
Online retail is expected to be strong, continuing on the trend from previous years. According to IBM's Sixth Annual Online Retail Holiday Readiness Report among more than 500 U.S. retailers, online sales jumped 13.9 percent in November 2012 and more than 15 percent the following month compared to the same periods in 2011.
- Invest in online properties: According to research by comScore, in 2012 Americans spent a staggering $42.3 billion in online transactions. This trend is expected to persevere, especially during days like Cyber Monday. Therefore, organizations need to invest heavily to make sure their websites are well equipped to cater for increased traffic without the quality suffering.
- Prepare your servers: The online experience depends on reliable servers and companies need to make sure that these can deal with a spike in traffic. As Alexander van Slooten, marketing director of Dutch online retailer Wehkamp.nl, notes, customers will leave a website if pages are loading slowly.
- Test your online preparedness: A sturdy website is a must and can only be ensured through regular testing. Michael Hines, vice president of e-commerce technology at The Jones Group, explains that small changes throughout the year can lead to degradation in the performance of the website. Therefore, regular testing is essential to uncover any areas that need to be tweaked. "Make time for testing, have a responsible person in charge, and have the tools to measure," he notes.
- Check for potential DNS vulnerabilities: Denial of service attacks can be disastrous for a company any time of the year, but especially during the busy holiday season. Hines recommends checking what other companies share the same Domain Name System (DNS) server and determining the risk that any of them fall victim of a denial of service attack, which would also impact your organization. Having a backup system is a good idea.
- Cater for the multichannel customer: Today's customers are interacting with their favorite brands over multiple channels, which means that companies need to bridge their different channels and deliver a great experience over each one. Best Buy Canada, for example, allows customers to reserve a product online and go pick it up in store, where they will decide whether to make a purchase.
Emails spilling from Santa's bag
It's not only holiday cards that will be keeping the postman busy. As the holidays approach, retailers start to rev up their messages in a bid to entice customers to spend their money at their stores. But email overload can wear customers out and risk messages going straight to the trash folder. A national survey commissioned by Campaigner found that almost half of customers receive more than 50 emails every day. Especially in the busy run up to the holidays, retailers need to make sure they stand out from the rest, especially their competitors.
- Keep the packaging simple: Advances in technology allow retailers to serve up email content in a pretty package. But as E.J. McGowan, Campaigner's general manager, notes, emails need to be designed with both desktop and mobile subscribers in mind. "Simple styling is the prettiest package of all," he notes. "Emails with one giant image without text or image map support could land in the spam folder like a lump of coal."
- Invest in content: "There's nothing more disappointing than a bad gift wrapped in pretty packaging," McGowan stresses. Organizations need to make sure that their beautifully designed emails have engaging content. "Spending time writing content that your readers will love is essential to any great email campaign."
- Check for proper deliverability: Organizations need to make sure that the messages they send are actually arriving in customers' inboxes. "Make sure your deliverability is as good as it can be," notes Jon Ozaksut, Limoges' ecommerce marketing manager.
- Get personal: Customers appreciate a personalized experience from retailers. Dan Darnell, Baynote's vice president of product and marketing, notes that a truly personalized and relevant experience will lead to greater engagement for customers, leading to increased revenue and customer loyalty for retailers.
Ringing in the holidays with a mobile-first strategy
The prevalence of mobile is revolutionizing shopping habits. Customers no longer need to be at home and in front of their computer to make an online purchase. Instead, customers are using both their smartphone's web browser as well as apps to make purchases. During the busiest shopping days, customers have been known to browse inventory or even make purchases while waiting in line at a store. According to the 2013 Holiday Survey by Baynote and etailing group mobile will continue to significantly drive revenue this year.
- Invest in mobile-only deals: As ebay president and CEO John Donahoe told CNBC earlier this year, many mobile customers are spending twice as much as their non-mobile peers. In order to recognize mobile shoppers' value, Brendan O'Kane, CEO of OtherLevels, recommends designing special deals for those who use their smartphones or tablets to make a purchase. "If you have a mobile-enabled loyalty program, make rewards available only to customers who interact with your mobile messages," he suggests. O'Kane notes that mobile coupons are a great way to keep customers engaged.
- Connect mobile to the in-store experience: Customers have become used to the personalized experience they receive online and have started to expect it when they visit brick-and-mortar stores, explains The Jones Group's Hines. He recommends putting systems in place to allow customers to identify themselves when they walk into a store and provide sales associates with the necessary information like purchase history or browsing preferences, to better assist individual customers.
- Overhaul your mobile website: Having a beautifully decorated store will have little impact on sales if mobile customers are faced with a difficult-to-navigate site. Retailers need to simplify their mobile Web properties, removing unnecessary functions, and presenting customers with an interface that's easy to navigate, explains ExactTarget's White.
- Make payments easy: As Hines rightly points out, customers often find it difficult to input payment information on mobile sites, especially while on the go. To make sure they don't miss out on a sale as frustrated customers give up on making a purchase, retailers should simplify the mobile payment systems. The Jones Group, for example, is integrating PayPal on its brands' mobile sites, allowing customers to use their existing PayPal accounts to make purchases.
- Target customers with relevant information: While organizations should be wary of appearing intrusive, retailers should consider targeting customers with relevant offers while waiting in checkout lines or even when they're at their competitors. These offers can be redeemed either online or in the store, White suggests.
Finally, organizations need to be well prepared to ramp up their normal volume. "Preparing for increased holiday sales that might require throughput of five to 10 times a normal day's activity requires substantial planning earlier in the year," notes Dotcom Distribution's Sternberg. "Developing a 'peak' strategy is part art, part science, and 100 percent planning. Do not underestimate all the moving parts that must be considered to have a profitable holiday."