June 24, 2010, 1:44 PM

Bag of tricks

Retailers can offer extras such as gift cards to boost holiday sales.

Lead Photo

Even when planning way ahead for the peak holiday shopping season, unexpected problems are sure to arise, experts say. But there are still ways to placate customers and keep the downsides to a minimum.

Sometimes problems arise as a result of a retailer’s unexpected success with a product promotion—for instance, a popular toy tied to a Disney movie or the latest electronics gizmo featured in an aggressive e-mail promotion sells out sooner than expected, bringing customers to a web page with an out-of-stock message.

To help keep those shoppers from abandoning the retailer’s web site, and feeling disgruntled to boot, provide an attractive gift card offer on pages featuring hot products, says Kristyn Levine, solutions strategist for Demandware Inc., a provider of a software-as-a-service e-commerce platform whose clients include retailers Gardener’s Supply Co., Crocs Inc. and Columbia Sportswear Co.

Gift cards promotions, as well as other merchandising features such as links to best sellers, can be an effective way to engage customers whenever a retailer doesn’t have what a shopper is looking for, she adds.

“Featuring a gift card can be especially important if a customer searches for a product or brand that a retailer doesn’t carry,” Levine says. “And don’t forget what made a site special before the holidays. Always show lists of best sellers, and provide links to an outlet section and special deals for price-conscious consumers.”

Retailers should also plan ahead to time some of their most important promotions to coincide with peak shopping days, including the Friday and Monday after Thanksgiving, Levine says. But if a promotion doesn’t perform as expected, it’s important to have an alternate one ready to go, she advises.

It also pays to watch unexpected shopping developments around the country, she adds. If the Northeast experiences particularly bad weather that prevents many holiday shoppers from getting to stores, online retailers can send out targeted e-mails to consumers in the Northeast with special offers tied to their weather situation.

Retailers should also cover the fundamentals, she adds, such as clearly posting holiday shipping deadlines, a link to track package shipments, and FAQs about customer service. Such steps not only make it easier for customers to shop and make it more likely they’ll return to shop again, but it can lower the pressure on customer service agents during peak periods. “Try to make sure shoppers don’t have to pick up a phone to call your contact center,” Levine says.

And once the holiday season comes to an end, merchants should implement a prepared post-holiday plan. “This a good time to promote the inventory that didn’t sell as well as expected during the holiday season, so retailers need to update their e-mail and search marketing programs,” Levine says.

And with a lot of consumers ready to spend holiday gift cards in late December and January, merchants should be ready with stocks of their best-selling items, she adds.

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