November 22, 2011, 4:21 PM

Get the holiday party started

With the holiday season set to blast off, retailers explain how to build sales.

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The critical sales period that starts this week and runs through the end of the holiday season contributes greatly to e-retailers’ ability to implement—and afford—all the tools and tactics they want to use to advance their sales next year. At this stage, retailers are pushing the ‘go’ button on the strategies they’ve mapped out over months, and have their fingers crossed that they encounter no hiccups they don’t have back-up plans for.

“Q4 is the make-or-break period,” says Erik Thomas, marketing director for eco-friendly shoe e-retailer PlanetShoes.com. “If you don’t do well in that quarter, then the year has the potential of not meeting expectations.” PlanetShoes.com is No. 504 in Internet Retailer’s Second 500 Guide.

PlanetShoes.com started mapping out its promotional e-mail strategy for holiday sales months ago and put the finishing touches on it about two weeks ago, but Thomas says the e-retailer intends to closely watch the performance of those e-mails offers and has backup plans ready if consumers don’t respond as hoped.

He says, for example, that if consumers start to unsubscribe from receiving PlanetShoes.com’s e-mails because the e-retailer is sending more messages than it normally does, it’ll set aside some of the planned e-mails completely or further refine its e-mail distribution list to avoid sending those e-mails to customers it knows are more likely to unsubscribe, such as customers who’ve only purchased from the e-retailer once.

Thomas says the e-retailer’s e-mail marketing manager has also spent months working with the Internet service and webmail providers that host consumers’ e-mail accounts to help ensure that PlanetShoes.com’s e-mails aren’t erroneously blocked as spam and arrive in inboxes as intended. The e-retailer’s also worked on improving the open rates for its messages by making the subject lines more intriguing, as ISPs and e-mail providers take message open rates into account when determining whether to deliver an e-mail into a consumer’s inbox. “The more opens we get, the longer the deliverability rate with that provider maintains,” Thomas says. “Rather than saying ‘shop now,’ we’re saying things like ‘find out what deals are available today.’ We’re trying to make the subject lines more like a Pandora’s Box so that consumers want to open the message and find out more.”

Kara Trivonovic, senior vice president at e-mail services software provider StrongMail Systems, says the steps PlanetShoes.com is taking to ensure deliverability this holiday season are similar to what e-retailers are doing across the board. “E-retailers are becoming more cerebral in looking at the tactics they have to employ to get consumers to engage with their content,” she says. “They don’t want their message to land in the bulk folder for lack of engagement. That doesn’t mean that you never e-mail to those who don’t always open, but maybe you message them less often.”

At SierraTradingPost.com, the online marketing team is making sure it’s tracking the effectiveness of its paid search and display advertising efforts and collecting all the consumer behavioral data that leads to holiday sales for the outdoor apparel and gear e-retailer.  Given the sheer volume of data it can collect during this peak season, Bert Adam, the e-retailer’s web marketing manager, says the data will help greatly influence the e-retailer’s ad investments in the new year. The e-retailer tracks its ad performance and collects consumers’ on-site behavior using Google Analytics. Sierra Trading Post Inc. is No. 88 in Internet Retailer’s Top 500 Guide.

For example, this fall the e-retailer began investing more in display advertising. Adam says the e-retailer will use the analytics information it collects about how consumers interact with the display ads this holiday season. “We’ll be able to make more actionable decisions on our branding efforts because there will be a clearer conversion and click paths. That helps us certainly when we have to answer questions on why we are spending on particular initiatives,” Adam says.

“This is a time where there is more data flowing in to be paying attention to,” says Bill Kee, product manager for Google Analytics. “Retailers need to make sure they have their analytics set up to take advantage of that data.”

Jason Hammock, SierraTradingPost.com’s search marketing manager, says the e-retailer also will use incoming data to react to consumers’ behavior in real time. “If we put out a Facebook post featuring a great deal, we can watch how referral traffic rises or how it gets picked up on deal sites,” he says, adding that that kind of data can help determine whether the e-retailer later offers that product as a daily deal item.

Consumers are expected to react positively to e-retailers’ efforts. E-retail sales in November and December are expected to reach $59.5 billion, up 15% from the same time a year ago, according to a sales projection from Forrester Research Inc.

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