Target and Toys R Us posted overall sales declines during the holidays.
Online retailers can ring up higher holiday sales with these 10 low-cost, high-impact marketing tips.
Retailers, online and offline, rolled out heavy promotions to juice back-to-school sales. And that's likely to continue in the crucial fourth quarter, says Kantar Retail senior economist Frank Badillo.
"Price cutting is only going to get worse going into the holiday," he says.
When margins are slim, it's tough for e-retailers to offer expensive perks like free shipping. But there are ways to generate more sales without giving away the store. Here are 10 tips—all inexpensive and quick—that can help e-retailers enjoy a very merry holiday season.
Tip #1 Who are you?
The web is a big and sometimes unruly place. Raise the comfort level of online shoppers by telling them, plainly and openly, who you are, where you are and how to get in touch with you. "People want to deal with real people, so post some photos of your business, personnel and inventory," says Luis Hernandez Jr., CEO of TheMotorBookstore.com. Put your phone number and e-mail address at the top of every page. "Don't make it hard for your customers to find you and talk to you," Hernandez says.
Tip #2 Clear away clutter
Just like that knotted jumble of Christmas tree lights, web sites get tangled over time, and a motley appearance can turn consumers off. "The simplicity of the design gets lost over time, and simplicity is important," says Charles Nicholls, founder and chief strategy officer of SeeWhy Inc., an e-commerce marketing consultancy. Analytics tools, either commercial software or the free Google Analytics tool, can help e-retailers determine which pages are most likely to cause consumers to leave. Then e-retailers can use free diagnostic tools from sites such as AttentionWizard.com to see where consumers get confused, he says. E-retailers can run problematic web pages through AttentionWizard's algorithm, which then highlights potential performance issues.
Additionally, don't pack pages with lots of keywords in the hopes of moving your site up in search results, Hernandez says. "If landing pages are not optimized for those who hold the credit cards, then they may be optimized just for traffic, instead of buyers," he says.
Keyword-jammed home pages or category pages are actually a turn-off to search engines, too, says Tim Kilroy, vice president of natural search at PM Digital, a digital marketing agency. "If you give the search engine 25 options, it interprets that as if you are trying to tell it you are relevant for 25 things," he says. "Then it takes the respect it has for you and spreads it among these 25 factors, so your relative strength is 1/25th of any of them. Packing with keywords doesn't do anybody any favors." Kilroy recommends using two to four relevant, non-repetitive keywords per page.
Tip #3 Make your e-mail marketing sing "Joy, Joy, Joy!"
Well, not literally. In fact, Chad White, research director at direct marketing agency Smith-Harmon and author of the Email Retail blog, says e-retailers should strip non-essentials from promotional e-mails to really make them sing. "People are really busy during the holidays and your content should not ask that much of them. Videos, social media campaigning—that content doesn't have any place in any in-box during the holiday season," he says. White says that, based on his experience, e-mail messages that are as tight as possible perform during better during the season than messages that present a layer-cake effect, meaning too many offers or messages appear in one e-mail.
White also suggests e-retailers carefully consider how their e-mail messages appear without images because that's how many consumers will see them, given that images often are blocked as a default setting. Areas that present text, such as the subject line and pre-header—the area that normally appears above the graphical header—may be the only parts of an e-mail a consumer will see. Use these areas to their maximum sales-generating potential, he says, such as by putting discount codes in them.
"Having that pre-header message at the top is critical," he says. "It's a quick and dirty thing to explore, but I think e-retailers would be happy with the results." ShopNBC.com, for example, is using pre-header messages that summarize each holiday e-mail's main call to action.
Tip #4 Make your transactional e-mail messages work harder
Consumers expect and look for transactional e-mails, such as messages that confirm a purchase or provide shipping updates. And—most important to the e-retailer looking to drum up some extra holiday sales—consumers open those e-mail messages. Nicholls says transactional e-mails have an average open rate of 50% to 70%.
White says e-retailers can put these e-mails to work by adding to them a secondary message that encourages return behavior, such as a coupon or gift guide, but he cautions e-retailers not to get carried away. "The secondary messaging has to be subservient to the transactional information they are looking for," he says, adding that violating that rule goes against e-mail best practices and against the spirit of the federal CAN-SPAM law that governs commercial e-mail.
Tip #5 Turn that lump of coal into a sales opportunity
Many consumers abandon an online purchase when they see the shipping costs, Nicholls says. That's why it's a good idea to capture a shopper's e-mail address before that point in the checkout process.
If a retailer has the consumer's e-mail address, and has created the necessary links to its e-mail system, it can send the shopper a follow-up e-mail offering assistance and providing a customer service number. "In remarketing e-mails, about 20% to 30% of recoveries come from the phone simply because [consumers] weren't comfortable or didn't understand the information they saw on the web site, such as which credit cards were accepted, return policies or delivery options," Nicholls says.
And send that e-mail fast! "If a shopper abandons and you follow up a week later, clearly it's going to be less effective than if you do it immediately," he says.
Tip #6 All I want for Christmas is a DEAL!