May 27, 2010, 12:13 PM

Looking ahead to the holidays

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A key pre-season tactic to prepare for paid search campaigns on the new Bing, as well as on Google, Michie says, is to carefully analyze a retailer’s year-ago holiday season paid search results. That means charting how search marketing-driven conversion rates and average order values, instead of just search traffic volume, trended in November and December.

If, as in the case of one Rimm-Kaufmann client, conversion rates and average order values peaked in the second week of December, the marketer can plan on raising its bids on paid search keywords in December 2010, he says.

As merchants attract more holiday shoppers to their sites with better marketing, their web pages must engage shoppers.

Heading into the 2009 holiday season, Wine.com addressed a void in its site search that was leaving popular wines without sales-generating recommendation and review content when new vintages of those wines arrived, such as a 2006 Cabernet being replaced by the 2007 version. It can take weeks or months for a new vintage to build up a base of recommendations and reviews—a particular problem for Wine.com when the new vintage appears close to the start of the peak shopping season.

Wine.com worked with RichRelevance, its recommendation engine vendor, and its site search provider, Endeca Technologies Inc., to make the recommendation and review content from prior vintages stay with the new wines—so at least shoppers could read up on the label’s history.

The retailer also worked with the two vendors last fall to build more personalized recommendations into faceted search, so that it could offer recommendations based on wine type and winery location, whether a shopper searched its site for Pinot Noir from Napa or Pinot Noir from France. Although that project was not done in time for last year’s holiday season, it was completed by the first quarter of this year—in plenty of time to test it for the 2010 holiday season, Smalling says.

The more online retailers do to attract and engage throngs of holiday shoppers, the more they need to ensure their infrastructure can handle the heavier traffic. Apparel designer and retailer Jones Apparel Group Inc., which provides ongoing updates of inventory availability on its web site, uses AlertSite to check that its page load times meet desired speeds during peak traffic periods.

If necessary, Jones may slow down its automated inventory updates to take pressure off its servers and allow pages to load more quickly. “Faster page loads are more important than near-real-time inventory status,” says Michael Hines, vice president of web marketing and development.

When Wine.com launched a redesigned home page prior to last year’s holiday season, it realized that it took too long, four seconds, to load. Working with Compuware Corp.’s Gomez monitoring service, it determined that it needed to remove unnecessary software code from JavaScript on its site that was used to pull data from external servers to support ad banners and other content. “We got it down to 1.5 seconds from four,” Smalling says.

Men’s apparel retailer Bonobos has improved its ability to ship later in the day—and later in the holiday season—and still deliver in time for Christmas, by improving how it communicates with its logistics partner, Quiet Logistics, says John Rote, who oversees the retailer’s warehouse and customer service operations.

“We’ve learned from prior holiday seasons that, rather than communicate with Quiet Logistics reactively, we need to let them know 30 to 60 days in advance when we plan to have holiday promotions or launch new products,” Rote says. “That makes it easier for them to allocate resources.”

“By telling them ahead of time the cubic volume of goods that need to be shipped,” he adds, “they can have the right packaging queued up and ready to go.”

Bonobos automatically transmits its web orders to Quiet Logistics, which provides the retailer’s warehousing and fulfillment facilities. By maintaining strong communications with Quiet Logistics about expected shipping volumes, the retailer can promise customers that it can ship orders received by 4:30 p.m., though in many cases last year it shipped orders that came in as late as 6 p.m., Rote says.

Last-minute gifts
For all the planning retailers do for a successful holiday season, there are always late-season steps they can take, experts say. One tactic can involve a close review of a retailer’s products and devising a way to run promotions that appeal to last-minute shoppers.

When Wine.com was looking for a way to increase sales late in the holiday season last year, it decided on Dec. 18 to heavily promote offers for its wine clubs and gift certificates. “Customers could e-mail a gift wine club certificate right up to Christmas Day, then the wine would ship later,” Smalling says. “We saw a jump in wine club memberships and gift certificates.”

As Wine and other retailers have shown, it pays to never stop thinking about how to spread cheer for the holidays.

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