According to market researcher eMarketer, retail ecommerce holiday sales this season are expected to top last year's -- by over 15 percent -- with sales in November and December alone expected to reach $61.8 billion.
Contributing to the increase in online sales, more consumers are using mobile devices (smartphones and tablets) to research products, comparison shop and purchase items online on the fly.
Is your ecommerce site ready for the holiday rush? To find out -- and learn how you can drive more traffic to your online business and increase sales this holiday season -- check out these 16 tips from ecommerce and online marketing pros.
1. Don't wait until the last minute to get your site holiday ready. "There is nothing worse than getting on the back end of your designer's schedule or paying to have your project expedited because you didn't prepare," says Katie Childers, owner, ABitofWine.com, an online wine gift and accessories boutique. "We are sending all of our Q4 graphics needs to our designer [now] so we are ready to go for key dates like Black Friday and Cyber Monday."
"Have everything -- any programming -- ready to go by November 1st," says Erik Huberman, CEO, Hawke Media. "Your landing pages, emails and ads need to queued up and ready to go when you know they'll be most effective," adds Will Devlin, ecommerce manager, ShopVisible, an ecommerce solution provider. To make sure you're ready to go come November, Devlin says creating a calendar several months ahead of time.
2. Make sure your teams, servers and partners can handle holiday traffic. "According to the National Retail Federation, 139.4 million consumers shopped on websites over the four-day Thanksgiving weekend in 2012 -- and several well-known online retailers experienced downtime and technical hurdles due to this overwhelming shopper response," says Devlin. To avoid losing sales, "ensure your website can handle traffic increases, especially when large promotions hit."
"If you're hosted on-premises, review your past performance metrics against your seasonal forecast and ensure that you have bandwidth and capacity for the expected spikes," says David Chiu, ecommerce strategist, Elastic Path Software.
"Similarly, work with third parties and vendors, including pay-per-click advertising managers and email marketers, to ensure they can handle increased load," says Devlin. "Equally important, work with warehouse and fulfillment teams to know when cut-off times are for shipping and ensure all feeds are properly updating inventory and pricing at the correct intervals."
3. Make sure your site is secure. "Before the onslaught of holiday traffic begins, ask the following questions," says Marc Gaffan, cofounder, Incapsula, a cloud-based security and acceleration service. "Is your website administration and back end secure? Are your admins using two-factor authentication? Are you prepared for possible DDoS attacks?"
Also, "be sure to monitor your Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) Certificate validity and expiration date," adds Zaheer Ahmed, marketing analyst, ManageEngine, a provider of enterprise IT management and network management software. "SSL provides the required cryptographic security needed to provide security to your customer communications. It's important to test and monitor the certificate expiration for adequate customer experience."
4. Have a mobile version of your site. "Last Black Friday, one in four U.S. retail website visits were from mobile shoppers," notes Ken Barber, vice president of marketing at mobile ecommerce solution provider mShopper. "This year it is expected to reach at least one in three. Given that the majority of mobile shoppers will abandon a website if it's not mobile friendly, it's essential to launch a mobile-optimized version of your website," he says. To make sure your site is mobile friendly, "make sure the site is built to address unique mobile shopping behaviors and isn't simply a re-skinning of your current site for mobile technology."
5. Stock up. "Pay extra attention to inventory planning before the holidays," says Maria Haggerty, president, Dotcom Distribution, a fulfillment and logistics company. "If your website runs out of products, you will lose out on holiday sales, as well as potential future sales from new customers," she warns. "Not only do you need a solid forecast of what products will sell, but you also need to make sure you have allowed sufficient lead time and factored vendor delays into the equation," she says. "Late arriving goods put added pressure on your back-end operation, which can lead to shipping delays."
6. Make sure pages load quickly. "Web performance expectations have evolved and users are demanding much more -- a one-second performance delay can be the difference between a profitable and unprofitable year," says Kavitha Mariappan, director, Product Marketing, at Riverbed, an application performance company.
"According to a Harris Poll, 44 percent of shoppers would cancel their online purchase mid-way during the final checkout process due to website delays and 89 percent of adult U.S. shoppers would simply stop shopping at an online store as a result of a poor website experience," Mariappan says.
The solution? "Implement sophisticated traffic management and Web content optimization tools to improve performance and reduce webpage load times," she says.
"Make your site load very fast, ideally less than 2 seconds per page load," adds Alex Zorach, founder and editor, RateTea. "A site that hangs for a few seconds before loading may lose visits from casual shoppers who are doing comparison shopping if competitors' sites load faster," he says. "A fast, responsive site also makes it more likely that users will explore your site fully."
And to avoid costly downtime, "make sure you have website monitoring tools in place which will alert you of sluggish performance and/or downtime," says Sean O'Brien, director of Marketing, Pagely, a provider of managed WordPress hosting.
"This is a step that often gets missed and is probably the most important. Do not wait for customers to alert you of any issues with your hosting infrastructure," O'Brien says. "You want to identify and fix it before they even realize it occurred, [using] tools [such as] Yottaa, Pingdom, Web Metrics or New Relic."
7. Make products shareable. "Encourage your customers to share favorite products from your site across their social networks by integrating social media [Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+] buttons onto pages," says Geoff Brash, cofounder and vice president of Business Intelligence, SLI Systems, which provides full-service site search, navigation, merchandising and user-generated SEO. In addition, "show the likes, favorites and recommendations of other influencers within search results and help your customers find social mentions quickly by indexing content from various social sites in a separate tab on the search page."
For visual companies, "Pinterest's PinIt button is ecommerce gold," says Apu Gupta, CEO of Curalate, a marketing and analytics platform for Pinterest and Instagram. "Adding the button can drive substantial traffic directly to your product pages, increasing revenue," he says. "It's easy to do, takes minimal real estate and gets your products in front of an audience of over 70 million users"
8. Make checkout easy. When gearing up for the holidays, "run a few short A/B tests on your cart-to-checkout process," says Linda Bustos, director, Ecommerce Research, Elastic Path Software.
"This should be spearheaded by marketing, not IT, but the CIO should understand the importance and enable marketing to run these tests if they need IT help," Bustos says. "You can get amazing wins with A/B and multivariate testing, and there's lots of tweaks that can be made to prevent leaving money on the screen."
9. Optimize your copy. "Do your listings describe your products or do they sell them?" asks Aaron Wadler, CEO, ShopPad, an ecommerce plugin for the iPad and tablets. "Features rarely make the sale, so you should seek ways to emphasize the benefits," he says.
"If you carry products that aren't unique to your store, use [unique] product descriptions to say something new and enticing. Besides the avoiding the SEO penalty Google puts on duplicated content, this is also a good way to make sure you are not just competing on price," Wadler says.
10. Use video and 360-degree images. "If you're not already utilizing the power of videos and 360-degree photography, you should start, immediately," says Brooks Robinson, CEO, Springbot, an ecommerce software provider.
"More than just a holiday trend, using videos and 360-degree images build customer confidence and increases time spent on site which dramatically increases your SEO, traffic, conversions and revenue," Robinson says. "Dynamic images and videos will transform your customer experience by better showcasing your products -- and [diminishing] the risk of returns."
11. Implement a holiday SEO strategy. "SEO takes time. So optimize your top performing pages [now], starting with the home page," says Reed Daw, SEO associate, Volusion, an ecommerce software and shopping cart provider.
"Make sure you include several highly searched keywords while matching them up with your title tags and headers," Daw says. And "don't forget to update your meta descriptions, the snippet of information that appears below your URL in search engines so Google gives your pages high priority when users are searching for those keywords."
"Introduce seasonal product pages on the same URL as many months in advance as possible to build up organic SEO juice before the actual buying period begins," says Rob Hooton, VME eCommerce APAC, NetSuite, provider of cloud-based financials/ERP and omnichannel commerce software suites.
"If the products can't yet be sold, have a 'Coming Soon' page and ask the customer to sign up to be notified when the product is available," Hooton says. "Linking these pages from blogs and external content will help drive the organic SEO in time for when the product becomes available. By the same token, if your products are seasonal and only available from year to year (Christmas trees for example), keep the page URL the same or make sure you 301 it if it changes."
12. Staff up -- and be ready to answer customer queries quickly. "Fulfilling orders is a time-consuming process, especially for smaller ecommerce businesses," notes Philip Masiello, CEO of 800razors.com. "Hiring additional staff ensures that orders ship out the same day they are ordered."
"Calculate staff and machine capacity for the worst case scenario," says Jurgen Gauger, COO, Spreadshirt, which produces custom t-shirts and personalized gifts. "Remember that scaling down in peak times is easier than scaling up during the holiday rush."
And make sure you have people ready to answer customer emails, tweets, Facebook queries and calls.
"Holiday shoppers generally ask questions when they are ready to make a purchase," says Masiello. "Focus your customer service strategy across all channels -- Twitter, Facebook, 800 number and emails -- and aim to answer questions in under 15 minutes," Gauger says. "The faster you respond, the higher the conversion rate."
13. Ramp up your email marketing campaigns -- and add SMS marketing to the mix. "Stage your email offers to begin approximately 4 to 6 weeks out," says Jerry Jao, CEO of Retention Science, a customer retention solution provider.
"At two weeks out, begin to engage customers more aggressively with 50 percent off and free shipping deals," Jao says. "Save your best deals for the biggest shopping days (Cyber Monday, Super Saturday, etc.), and consider making them limited-time or limited-quantity offers to spur immediate action," he says. Just "one word of caution: avoid running crazy sales too far in advance because you'll risk cannibalizing your holiday season profits."
Also consider SMS marketing, especially if your target audience is mobile.
"Text message marketing can be a powerful weapon to reach shoppers as they visit your brick-and-mortar competitors," adds Barber. "Holiday shoppers are very active, jumping between multiple physical stores to find the right product and best deal," Barber says.
"Send text messages on holiday weekends with strong promotional offers and a link to purchase right away from an easy-to-use mobile website," he says. "There's no better way to reach your on-the-go holiday shoppers and compete with the brick-and-mortar stores," Barber says.
14. Run pay-per-click (PPC) campaigns."Organic SEO takes months in advance to build, and promoting holiday SEO terms that far in advance will hurt your regular website traffic," argues Darin Colino, director of Web Development, CyberDesign International. "A PPC campaign is perfect for holiday season, because you can switch it on and off as needed and see almost instant results."
15. Incentivize customers to order early."Consider offering an incentive for early orders," says Jennifer Martin, principal consultant, Zest Business Consulting. "For example 'Buy your holiday gift purchase by November 30th and receive free shipping" or 'Purchase a $50.00 gift card for just $45.00 if you buy before December 15th.'"
16. Offer free or discounted shipping -- and provide shipment tracking. "A 2012 comScore study commissioned by UPS showed that 73 percent of shoppers expect free or discounted shipping, and 70 percent were willing to add more products to the cart to reach the free shipping minimum," says Zeena Bushnaq, managing director, Wazala, a hosted ecommerce solution. "So clearly stating your shipping costs and offering free shipping at an order minimum [or in general] will help you sell more."
And provide tracking.
"Being able to tell customers when and where their package will arrive is another incentive for them to do business with you," says Amine Khechfe, general manager and cofounder, Endicia, a provider of shipping solutions and postage.
"So explore shipping technologies that automatically generate an email with tracking details as soon as a package is sent," Khechfe says. "Providing notification of shipment and a link to the current delivery status results in fewer phone calls from customers wondering about the status of their shipment, allowing you to spend more of your time fulfilling orders."
Jennifer Lonoff Schiff is a contributor to CIO.com and runs a marketing communications firm focused on helping organizations better interact with their customers, employees, and partners.
Read more about e-commerce in CIO's E-commerce Drilldown.