August 4, 2014, 11:44 AM

Sponsored Special Report: The Holiday Rush

A sponsored special report on the technologies and services that can help make e-retailers’ holiday sales merry and bright.

Lead Photo

Jack Frost may not be nipping at anyone’s nose in August, but now is when e-retailers want to put the finishing touches on readying their e-commerce platforms for the all-important holiday shopping season. For those e-retailers running behind schedule, however, there’s still time to make improvements that can boost sales and customer satisfaction. The key is to identify simple changes that have the power to deliver a big impact and to implement them with a sense of urgency, rather than swing for the fences with a last-minute, costly capital project.

Small improvements, such as fixing broken links within a web site or on search pages, speeding page load times, updating site search dictionaries and adjusting delivery cutoff dates so orders will arrive in time for Christmas can significantly boost sales and customer satisfaction.

“At this point of the year, there really is not enough time for an e-retailer to make major changes to its platform and properly test them in time for the holiday shopping season, but it still has time to make improvements across its business that can enhance the holiday shopping experience,” says Brian Hess, director of retail strategy for CrossView, a provider of cross-channel solutions.

Easy checkout

Simplifying checkout by reducing the number of fields a customer must fill out is an easy change that can reduce cart abandonment. Too often retailers use the checkout page to gather extra information about a customer for use in future marketing. Online shoppers, however, expect a simple, streamlined process and tend to favor retailers that meet that expectation, says Danelle Eilers, director of client management for web site design firm Americaneagle.com.

“Retailers want to remove the barriers that make checkout more complicated and time-consuming than necessary,” she says. “A lot of the questions asked of consumers, such as ‘How did you hear of us’ can be asked while they are browsing or after the sale has been made in a post-checkout survey or follow-up e-mail. The more questions asked at checkout, the more likely customers are to be tripped up by them and leave before completing the purchase.”

Adding one-click payment options, such as PayPal Express Checkout, can further streamline the checkout process, and that’s particularly important for mobile shoppers. “One-click payment is a huge benefit for mobile users, because they don’t have to worry about making mistakes typing in their account information on a small screen and having to start over,” Eilers says.

With competition for holiday shoppers’ dollars becoming fiercer every year, retailers that deliver personalized product recommendations and targeted marketing messages to their customers and prospects will have a fighting chance at converting shoppers into valuable customers.

Retailers can tap into their customer data to identify customer segments using a combination of variables, such as behavior patterns, the types of items purchased and browsed, average ticket size and geographic location. By using real-time predictive analytics and analyzing data to predict buyer intent, a retailer can match these variables to the shopper on its site, then automatically display banner and pop-up ads likely to appeal to that shopper’s tastes and budget.

When a customer not known to the retailer comes to its web site, the analytics engine can use available information about the shopper, such as her location, pages she’s viewing and links she is clicking on within the site, to predict and display the products and offers most likely to appeal to her.

“Having a better understanding about a customer’s preferences and what is likely to influence her purchasing decision is the advantage real-time analytics provides for retailers,” says Leslie Petry, senior director, solutions marketing for Neustar Inc., a provider of real-time information and analysis, as well as web site performance monitoring and testing.

Knowing a customer’s average spending threshold, for example, allows a retailer to suggest products in that price range to the shopper as she browses. “If a shopper looking to buy flowers for Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day is viewing the $19.99 special, then the retailer should show her alternative products at or slightly above that price range, as opposed to something in the $100 range,” Petry says. “Real-time analytics help retailers identify customer behavior patterns and preferences so they can deliver a personalized offer likely to trigger a purchase while the customer is on the site.”

Neustar’s PlatformOne integrated marketing solution leverages consumer and demographic data to segment consumers into groups based on their expected buying power and interests. Neustar enables marketers to go a step further by tying personalized offers to known and unknown visitors to their web site.

Speeding up the site

Retailers wondering what holiday enhancements will increase customer satisfaction and boost sales ought to look at improving site performance. Faster page downloads can prevent an impatient shopper from leaving a retailer’s web site and increase the chances she will make a purchase. Plus, the fixes can be implemented in just a few weeks. Since many e-retailers rack up about one-third of their sales during the holiday season, neglecting performance issues that are correctable now can be a costly blow.

“Improving site performance for the holidays can have a bigger impact on the bottom line than adding a new feature,” says Brandon Elliott, chief technologist, digital, for Rackspace, a provider of cloud, managed and hybrid hosting solutions.

One sure way to improve page download times is to reduce the amount of data passing between a retailer’s web server and the web browser on a consumer’s computer or mobile device. “Unfortunately, a lot of retailers put this off to the last minute so they aren’t as thorough as they should be when it comes to optimizing browser performance,” Elliott says. “Retailers should allocate one to two weeks to minimize both the number and size of files moving between the web server and the web browsers.”

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