The 2012 holiday shopping season right around the corner, but it's not too late to make changes to your ecommerce site to take advantage of the holidays—even if budgets are tight or you have little in-house technical expertise to make changes on your website.
Preparation takes on added importance this year thanks to the extension of the traditional online holiday shopping period. As with brick-and-mortar stores, says James Gagliardi, vice president of products and innovation at Digital River, we can expect online retailers to start holiday promotions as early as Black Friday (the Friday following Thanksgiving, which this year falls on the earliest date possible) and Cyber Monday (the Monday immediately following Black Friday) and extend promotions well past New Year's Day in January 2013.
To help you prepare for this long holiday haul, CIO.com spoke with several ecommerce experts and vendors to discover what changes you can easily make on your site right now to cash in on online holiday sales.
1. Start With a Usability Review
Business owners who have spent months planning marketing and merchandising can sometimes forget that simple website issues such as category labels or confusing error messages can have a big impact on customers.
Brian Walker, senior vice president of strategy at hybris software, recommends a quick usability review with live customers, as this may reveal some low-hanging fruit that's easy to fix. "If customers get confused or can't find what they're looking for, the results are immediate—they are shopping elsewhere," Walker says.
2. Refresh Key Website Elements
Eddie Machaalani and Mitch Harper, founders and co-CEOs of Bigcommerce, say the holidays can be make or break time for online merchants. Simply refreshing elements of your website might improve traffic and sales come Cyber Monday.
"This doesn't necessarily mean a complete overhaul of the website," Machaalani notes. "Small updates, called-out specials and features that help streamline the purchasing process and show off bundled products will go a long way and potentially increase up-sell rates."
3. Use Custom Holiday Landing Pages
Gagliardi says a technique that's worked for his clients is creating and using custom landing pages for all promotional activity. "We see a tremendous uplift in having those custom pages when compared with driving customers to standard category and product pages," he says, adding that clients who use custom landing pages for holiday promotions tend to see improved click-through and conversion.
4. Promote Free Shipping on Your Website
Most experts agree that you should roll out free shipping for the holidays. If you can offer free shipping, be sure to prominently say so on your homepage and in ads, says Vendio CEO Mike Effle. "The words 'Free Shipping' can bring in more buyers, even if you [attach a] condition it on [such as] a minimum order amount," he says.
Michael Lee, director of global marketing for Alibaba.com, also recommends free shipping. However, he cautions you must be clear about the free shipping deadline when you promote it on your site. "This increases the sense of urgency, as well as better manages customer expectation to avoid a negative experience," he says.
5. Focus on Content and Merchandising Optimizations
At this stage of the year, any significant redesign of the experience or site optimization should be finished and now you can focus on site content and merchandising optimization. Don't guess what the customer wants, hybris software's Walker says. Instead, test different versions of content in short cycles and optimize quickly for the winner. "With traffic at peak, the click-through on content bake-offs are meaningful," he says. "Optimizing the marketing and merchandising will add real revenue and margin."
6. Make the Check-Out Process Easy
Alibaba.com 's Lee says payment processing during the holiday shopping season has to be as easy as possible. "Online shoppers need a way to pay for products and services online, and that's easy these days," he says. "You can accept credit card payments with either a PayPal account or an online merchant account."
There's some debate about allowing guest checkouts this time of year. However, Digital River's Gagliardi says, you're able to provide a better shopping experience on future visits when you capture customer data during the first visit. To that end, he recommends using a streamlined, one-page checkout for repeat customers and breaking longer registration forms into separate pages so new customers aren't overwhelmed with the registration process.
7. Improve Access to Customer Support
During the holidays, providing customer service that exceeds expectations is priority No. 1 for online retailers. Harper, of Bigcommerce, suggests giving customers easy-to-locate and easy-to-use customer support tips and contact information. Audit your site to make sure this is the case. "Businesses also need to make sure measures and staff are in place to respond to customer questions and comments at a moment's notice," he says.
Gagliardi, meanwhile, recommends offering a toll-free customer service number and putting that on your website. "When we do this for clients, we don't actually see a real uptick in customer calls—but we do see an increase in close ratios because customers have more buying confidence."
8. Offer Flash Sales, Coupon Codes and Daily Deals
A popular type of online sale to offer this year is a flash sale, in which you set a really good deal for a short period of time—a few hours, usually—and promote the sale heavily on your website, in email and on social media. (To do these types of sales you need to prepare in advance and make sure servers can handle the upswing in traffic.)
"It's similar to door busters that you find in brick and mortar stores," Gagliardi says, adding that this type of sale proved successful for Digital River's clients last year and is expected to drive sales again this year.
Vendio's Effle also recommends promoting daily deals on your website to keep shoppers coming back throughout the season. This encourages shoppers to visit your site every day to see the "Offer of the Day." He also recommends that you make your daily deals and free shipping promotions available through coupon codes.
"You can then go to all the coupon sites and add your listing," Effle says. "This gives you even more exposure (and potential sales) than just including it for buyers who are already looking at your site."
9. Be Special—and Show It on Your Main Page
In order to stand out, experts recommend posting specials and bundle offers on your main website pages. Alibaba.com's Lee says giving buyers something special is one of the main secrets of a successful ecommerce business.
"Spend time developing something that your customers wont find anywhere except at your store," he says. "For example, you can offer some services for free or provide coupons for future visits with each purchase."
Gagliardi recommends using product bundles to spice up your holiday promotion on-site and to give customers something unique. These could include bundling paper and ink with printer purchases or offering immediate discounts on the purchase of two video game titles.
"We have clients use unique bundles so they're not competing with Amazon or brick-and-mortar stores," he says. "They're actually creating unique bundle opportunities that can bring the average order value back up."
10. Don't Forget to Test All Changes You Make
The worst scenario is planning fantastic and unique holiday promotions and content but rolling out something that doesn't work or confuses your customers during the online shopping process.
When making changes to your website and setting up promotions, Walker of hybris software recommends that you always test the content. This includes all promotion codes, pages and hyperlinks. Testing every change is the best way to make sure customers have an exceptional holiday shopping experience on your website.
"One of the best ways to test," Walker says, "is to actually spend time shopping the site yourself."
Based in Nova Scotia, Canada, Vangie Beal has been covering small business, electronic commerce and Internet technology for more than a decade. You can tweet with her online @AuroraGG. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, on Facebook, and on Google +.