A lot of hopes are pinned on the holiday season this year. Of course, the holidays are always a key time for retailers, but after two years of economic doldrums, this holiday season’s sales are even more crucial for small business owners than ever.
While official projections for holiday sales have ranged from flat to slight growth, the overall consensus is that sales will rise this year. The National Retail Federation—typically considered the most reliable monitor of retail sales--predicts that retail sales will increase by 2.3 percent. If you want to get your share of consumers’ holiday purchases, here are some things you need to know.
1. Consumers are cautious. They may be planning to spend a bit more, but consumers are still watching every penny. They want deals and value. That doesn’t necessarily mean the best price, but it does mean getting their money’s worth. Your marketing message must convince them that what they buy from you will be memorable, valuable and make their holidays better.
2. Consumers do their homework. More consumers than ever will be researching products online before they buy, looking for other shoppers’ opinions and the best prices. The *2010 Consumer Shopping Habits Survey by ChannelAdvisor reports that 58 percent of consumers are “very likely” to buy gifts online this year; in comparison, only 41 percent said they are very likely to buy at a physical store. What does that mean to you? Even if you have a physical store, you should also have an online presence—which means at least a basic website. Make sure it includes information like location, photos of your store, a map or directions, hours and ways to contact you (phone, chat and e-mail). Check to be sure your site comes up online when customers do an Internet search. But smart retailers should be operating an e-commerce site, in addition to their storefronts.
3. Consumers read reviews. With more and more people going online to read reviews and ratings of products before they buy, you need to know what customers are saying about your business online. Get your business listed on local search sites like Local.com and CitySearch (it’s free) and on shopping comparison sites. Every place you’re listed boosts your position in search results. Next, monitor the reviews of your products, services or business that appear online. Answer poor reviews before they have a chance to damage your reputation. Make it easier for customers to find the reviews by linking to them from your site; you can even post reviews on your site.
4. Consumers care about the experience. Today’s customers value the entire experience of buying a product or service—so make sure the experience of shopping with you, whether online or offline, is easy and enjoyable. Is your website clear and easy to navigate? Can customers check out with minimal clicks? How about your store—is it inviting, exciting, calm or luxurious? Whatever your “brand” is, make sure your store or site convey your image.
5. Consumers care about others. If your business is involved in socially responsible causes (and I hope you are), now is the time to let customers know about it. Tie in your marketing efforts and special offers with your business’s pet cause. For instance, you could have a percentage of every purchase of X product go toward your charity; you could hold a fund-raiser day where a percentage of all site or store sales go toward that organization; you and your staff could volunteer at the charity one day and invite customers to join you. Customers are in a giving spirit at the holidays, and they’ll give your company more business if they feel like they’re also giving back.
6. Consumers want extras. The holidays are the time when customers need a little extra something. Whether that’s a few cushy seats in your store for weary shoppers to rest their feet, free gift wrap or samples, or coupons offering a discount on the next purchase, try to throw in a little something extra each time they buy.
7. Consumers want to feel special. Membership has its privileges, and can motivate customers to buy more. Invite customers to join your VIP club and give them access to a members-only shopping night at your store; special services such as a personal shopper; or an e-newsletter with special offers just for them.
8. Consumers want to celebrate. Host a holiday party for your best customers. Depending on your budget, this could range from an elaborate dinner at a fancy restaurant to an afternoon open house at your office. You don’t have to spend a lot of money; what’s important is letting customers know how much they mean to you and that you value their business.
9. Customers use e-mail. While social media gets lots of buzz, good old e-mail is still a key way to get customers to spend. In fact, *Experian’s 2010 Holiday Marketer report projects e-mail marketing will increase by 15 to 20 percent this year compared to the 2009 holiday season. Customers look to e-mail for offers like rewards, discounts or free shipping. Get them to act by putting a time limit on your offer or using a countdown (“20 shopping days to Christmas”). The holidays are also a great time to reactivate customers on your e-mail list who have been dormant all year, so don’t ignore them. Finally, refer-a-friend e-mails get great results this time of year; include a link that makes it easy for users to pass the e-mail along.
10. Consumers shop early… and late. According to Experian, Thanksgiving Day will be the busiest day for online retailing again this year; the day after Christmas will be the second-busiest. But the day after Thanksgiving is still critical for brick-and-mortar retailers. All reports indicate that consumers have already started their holiday shopping this year—and that they’ll keep shopping in search of the perfect price. So you may want to consider extending special offers past those key shopping days.
11. Consumers are phoning it in. One area to take note of this year: mobile. Currently, the percentage of consumers who actually buy things with their mobile phones is very small (13 percent, reports ChannelAdvisor). However, this trend is poised to grow fast—especially among users aged 18 to 34. If you target younger consumers, you may want to explore location-based services like Gowalla or Foursquare; send targeted e-mails or texts to customers’ smartphones; or create special offers or limited-time deals for mobile users only.