July 10, 2008, 12:00 AM

Marketing for holiday season should begin in October

While most consumers don’t start holiday shopping in earnest until the day after Thanksgiving, online retailers should begin marketing for the season in October, according to a holiday season study by MarketLive, an e-commerce platform provider.

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 e-commerce platform provider.

During 2007’s fourth quarter, online merchants in the MarketLive Performance Index experienced an overall conversion rate of 4.8%, an 18% increase from the third quarter. The engagement rate (visit-to-cart) ratio rose 9.87%, up 4% from the prior quarter, and cart abandonment dropped 6% to 55.64%.

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 says. Overall conversion increased by 66% to 6.44%, while engagement increased 33% to 11.89%. Abandonment dropped by 3%.

Retailers must be prepared to adjust to steep peaks and troughs during the fourth quarter to capture the most sales, MarketLive says. 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, it says.

Retailers also should use e-mail to help shoppers meet their goals. Creative e-mail 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, MarketLive says.

• At 10 weeks prior to the holiday: Adjust site content to optimize for top natural search keyword terms-it takes 30-45 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 investment. Encourage e-mail sign-ups in advance of the season by offering discounts to new registrants. Launch a holiday-specific e-mail newsletter with specialized content and product offers. Prominently display on sites “top sellers,” “our picks,” “top products,” etc., to stimulate gifting ideas.
• At eight weeks: Begin weekly e-mail 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 on sites 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 e-mail 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 e-mail 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 cut-offs. 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 e-mail 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 sub-categories by price, gender and product type.

MarketLive says this plan can be used for any holiday or major event, including Mardi Gras, the Summer Olympics, Independence Day or Halloween.

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