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While most consumers don't start holiday shopping in earnest until the day after Thanksgiving, online retailers should begin marketing for the season as early as October, according to MarketLive Inc., an eCommerce platform provider. During the fourth quarter of 2007, online merchants in the MarketLive Performance Index experienced an overall conversion rate of 4.8 percent, which was an 18 percent increase from the third quarter.
The engagement rate, or ratio of visit to cart, rose 9.87 percent during that quarter of the past year, up four percent from the same quarter the year before. Cart abandonment dropped six percent in the final quarter of 2007, to 55.64 percent.
When comparing the first half of the fourth quarter versus the peak holiday season that began on the day after Thanksgiving, performance jumped significantly as shoppers began browsing and buying in earnest, MarketLive researchers said. Overall conversion increased by 66 percent to 6.44 percent, while engagement increased 33 percent to 11.89 percent. Cart abandonment dropped by three percent.
Retailers must be prepared to adjust to steep peaks and troughs during the fourth quarter to capture the most sales, the study said. Suggested tactics include devising creative ways to merchandize existing products. New combinations, custom selections and personalization features can lend fresh gifting possibilities to a retailer's site, without broadening the overall number of items.
Retailers also should use email to help shoppers meet their goals. Creative email campaigns that solve gift giving conundrums and communicate clearly to customers about fulfillment will help them complete their shopping and be satisfied with the results, according to MarketLive analysts. They suggested the following sequence of activity:
- At 10 weeks prior to the holiday: Adjust site content to optimize for top natural search keyword terms. It takes 30 to 45 days for changes to register with major search engines. Send messages to early shoppers with services such as, "Shop now, ship later," or, "Guaranteed delivery by...." Make sure gift guides offer products keyed to the season and move links to gift cards into global positions.
- At nine weeks: Identify paid search terms you want to own and begin ramping up your investment. Encourage email signups in advance of the season by offering discounts to new registrants. Launch a holiday specific email newsletter with specialized content and product offers. Prominently display, "top sellers," "our picks," "top products," etc. on websites to stimulate gifting ideas.
- At eight weeks: Begin weekly email campaigns encouraging early shopping and promoting popular gift products and categories. Consider participating in feeds for comparison shopping engines to boost visibility for your brand. Promote items that shoppers want in advance of a holiday, such as decorations or party wares. Boost the prominence of customer service information and include event cut-off dates on shipping pages.
- At seven weeks: Target loyal customers with offers for the season, such as a percentage off purchases above a particular threshold, or free gifts with a purchase. Move gift guide links and content into prominence on the home page and relevant category pages, along with gift card information.
- At six weeks: Use email and paid search campaigns to emphasize collections of items and highlight new products that may be out of stock later in the season. Stimulate wish list usage with a contest offering participants the chance to, "win their wish list." On the site, adjust cross sell and upsell product mix to include gift cards and popular gift picks. Use search results pages to provide messages about gift items. If you offer free shipping above a threshold, prominently display the dollar amount the customer would need to add in order to qualify.
- At five weeks: Roll out an initial free shipping offer to entice shoppers to complete purchases. Post shipping cut off information on the home page and in the gift guide area.
- At four weeks: Step up email campaigns to twice per week, scheduling campaigns on Thursdays or Fridays to stimulate purchasing on the weekend, when conversion rates peak. Place links for creating, sharing and finding wish lists prominently throughout the site. Move customer service links to a prominent place on the page. Solicit and post holiday related, user submitted content.
- At three weeks: Offer sweepstakes games and drawings to stimulate visits during the peak period. Launch a holiday countdown, employing a ticker on the home page and spotlighting shipping cutoffs. Highlight a gift of the day or special of the day, tied to the countdown.
- At two weeks: Roll out a second free shipping offer to entice shoppers to complete purchases during the peak period. Use customer reviews to highlight which items are hot. Use a top rated gifts category on the home page and in the gift guide.
- At one week: Discount expedited shipping for loyal customers and top spenders. Tie a special promotion to shipping date cut off days, such as a gift with purchase or a 24 hour sale. On the site, use global banners to highlight shipping cut off days, changing information daily as the deadlines pass. Once the cut off dates have passed, begin allotting space to post peak sale previews.
- On the holiday: Send an email alerting customers to sale offers to come. Boost the prominence of customer service information on how to make returns and redeem gift cards. Prominently place links into clearance categories on the home page, exposing subcategories by price, gender and product type.
Incidentally, MarketLive said this plan should be used for any holiday or major event, including: Mardi Gras, Independence Day or Halloween.
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