August 18, 2011, 4:15 PM

Prepare today for online holiday sales

Now is the time to get e-mail, shipping offers and site performance up to speed.

Lead Photo

Sucharita Mulpuru of Forrester urges e-retailers to pay attention to the basics.

With consumers about to log onto e-commerce sites in search of holiday gifts, the industrious elves of e-retail need to perfect their marketing and delivery plans as the year’s most lucrative shopping season draws near.

The traditional kickoff for holiday buying is the day after Thanksgiving, commonly referred to as Black Friday. Last year, sales from Black Friday through the following Monday, increasingly referred to as Cyber Monday, accounted for 18% of total online holiday sales, according to data from IBM Coremetrics, which this week organized a webinar that focused on holiday readiness. U.S. online sales topped $1 billion on Cyber Monday alone, according to comScore Inc.

To accommodate the anticipated spike in traffic and sales, e-retailers need to optimize their sites for speed and functionality rather than style, says Forrester Research Inc. analyst Sucharita Mulpuru, who took part in the webinar. She says that the ballooning popularity of mobile devices and tablet computers means e-retailers have to make sure essential site functions work for all screens. “It isn’t about being pretty,” she says. “It’s about getting your page to load on any browser or device your customer is trying to access it from.”

E-retailers also should make sure the content of those web pages loads quickly. 47% of consumers say they expect a page to load within two seconds, and 40% will wait no longer than three seconds before moving on, according to web performance monitoring service Akamai Technologies Inc. Higher-than-average site traffic, mixed with aesthetically pleasing site enhancements, can heighten the risk for site crashes, Mulpuru warns.

E-retailers also should review their e-mail marketing strategies ahead of the holiday rush. 51% of consumers who shop online on Cyber Monday say they learned about sales and offers via e-mail, according to Forrester Research data, and e-mail remains one of the strongest drivers of site traffic during the holidays. Yet, according to IBM Coremetrics data, almost 25% of marketing e-mails are blocked, returned as undeliverable or land in consumers’ junk mail folders in the run-up to Thanksgiving weekend. John Squire, director of digital analytics and marketing automation at IBM Coremetrics, said during the webinar that e-retailers should be careful about increasing the frequency of e-mail blasts ahead of the holiday sales season. That’s because e-mail inbox providers, such as Yahoo or Google, often block or treat as spam sudden surges in messages from marketers.

E-retails also should review their shipping strategies for the holiday season, experts say. Consumers may consider free shipping almost as a basic human right this holiday shopping, so e-retailers need to figure out how they can offer the promotion without losing money. Mulpuru suggests e-retailers try to factor at least some shipping costs as a marketing expense, as the offer of free shipping can cinch a sale. According to Forrester, 55% of consumers expect free shipping for online purchases.

The final lesson for e-retailers is to respect the basics. E-retailers should devote more attention to core features of e-commerce, such as  e-mail, site performance, and shipping and delivery efficiencies, than on sexier but relatively less profitable areas, such as mobile commerce and social network marketing, Mulpuru says. Social networks, while growing and worth monitoring, for example, drive less than 1% of site traffic that results in sales, according to Forrester data.

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