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Small Business Holiday Prep

While many consumers complain about “Christmas creep” (holiday messages and displays increasingly showing up in October, it’s never too early for small businesses—especially retailers, including online merchants to prepare.

All indications point to a healthy holiday season. The holiday sales forecast from eMarketer predicts 2021 sales will increase 2.7% to $1.093 trillion, and e-commerce revenues will rise 11.3% to $206.88 billion. They also say e-commerce will account for a record 18.9% of total holiday season retail sales. This forecast is from February, so the numbers could well increase—and we’re still waiting to hear the holiday sales forecast from the NRF (National Retail Foundation), which raised their initial 2021 sales forecast in May.

EMarketer cautioned that actual sales will be dependent on the state of the economy. The good news is that in the August Monthly Economic Review from NRF economist Jack Kleinhenz says that retail sales were “up 16.4% year-over-year for the first six months of the year, [which is] in line with NRF’s revised forecast that 2021 sales should grow between 10.5 and 13.5 percent over 2020.” But he notes, there was a “pullback” of consumer spending in July.

In other good news for in-store retailers, many of the big box stores that have been open on Thanksgiving Day (depressing in-store shopping on Black Friday, affecting sales at nearby small businesses) will be closed this year. This will likely lift online sales on Thanksgiving this year—so make sure you’re prepared.

Now that you know the landscape, how else can you prepare? BigCommerce has an excellent and thorough guide up for small online retailers, The Complete 2021 Guide to Preparing Your Ecommerce Store for Holiday Magic. In the report, BigCommerce lays out a detailed 5-step program for preparing for the upcoming holiday season:

  1. Prepare for incoming traffic
  2. Create a hassle-free customer experience
  3. Surprise and delight with shipping and fulfillment options
  4. Create strategic holiday marketing and promotions
  5. Ramp up customer service and support

Let’s take a deeper look at some of the steps.

Be Ready Before the Cyber 5

If you want to be truly prepared for incoming traffic, your technology needs to be updated and able to handle the increased holiday shopping traffic, especially from Thanksgiving Day-Cyber Monday (referred to as the Cyber 5). You don’t want your site to go down during this crucial sales time.

You also want to make sure your site loads quickly—two seconds is ideal for e-commerce sites. You can test your site speed here.

It’s All About Your Customers

Whether you sell online or in-store (or both), your inventory should be fully stocked. If customers can’t get what they want, they’ll go somewhere else to get it.

Your website needs to be easy to navigate, with an upgraded look and feel. It should reflect your branding, and the checkout process should be quick and easy. BigCommerce reports that according to a survey, 21% of online shoppers have abandoned their shopping carts due to a long, complicated checkout process.

Those customers are not necessarily lost, however. Emails sent to consumers who have abandoned their carts typically have great conversion rates, especially if tailored for holiday shoppers.

Highlight Your Merchandise

Highlighting the products you want to sell is a smart strategy for both online and in-store retailers. Create gift idea bundles to make the shoppers’ job easier. Assemble gift baskets of all sizes. Offer suggestions, such as “Ideas for teachers,” etc. Give customers the option of building their own baskets. 

Online, consider creating a holiday section on your site, making it extra easy for consumers to find what they need.

Personalization Sells

Personalized shopping experiences make customers feel “seen,” valued, and welcome. BigCommerce says, “Nearly 89% of marketers report using personalization results in increased revenue.”

The BigCommerce report suggests you can do this by asking people ahead of time (via surveys and pop-ups) who they’re shopping for. “Tag their profile so when it comes time to send promotional content, you can send content that’s relevant to shopping for a specific person (e.g., cousin, uncle, daughter, etc.) to them. This will increase conversion rates and revenue.”

Make it Easy to Pay

If you haven’t already expanded your payment options, you should do so immediately. According to eMarketer:

  • In-store mobile payment app use will hit a milestone in 2021, reaching 101.2 million among Americans ages 14+.
  • This comes after 29.0% y/o/y growth in 2020.
  • Usage is now on track to surpass half of all smartphone users by 2025.

There are numerous payment options to consider today, including the many digital wallet options, such as PayPal, Venmo, Google Pay Send (previously Google Wallet), and Apple Pay

Expand Your Sales Channels

Where do you sell now? If you have a physical store, hopefully, you already have a thriving e-commerce site as well. If you don’t, build it now! There is no time to waste. Even if you already have a website, or the web is your only sales outlet, you should also be selling your products on mega-marketplaces, like Amazon, eBay, Walmart, Etsy, and more.

Social commerce—selling from your social channels is on the rise as well—eMarketer projects the number of social commerce buyers will grow 13% to 90.4 million this year.

Customers Want Convenience

If there’s one thing in-store retailers should have learned from the pandemic, it’s that convenience is key to satisfying shoppers. So they want—actually, they expect—retailers to offer them a seamless shopping experience by offering curbside pickup and BOPIS (buy online, pickup in-store). Collectively they’re known as click & collect.

And the number-one factor encouraging shoppers to buy has not changed in years—free shipping—it’s the number-one factor cited by online shoppers as enticing them to buy. All year-round, but especially during the holidays, customers want to track their purchases to know when they will be delivered.

BigCommerce also notes a survey that found 96% of consumers will return to merchants who “made returns and exchanges as seamless as possible.” That means offering a clear return policy that you prominently display, both on your site and in your store. If you typically provide a limited-time return policy, that needs to change. Consider extending it to January 31. It also helps to offer to send gift receipts with the order.

Holiday Promotions

The key is to plan your holiday marketing now and, according to the BigCommerce guide, be ready to launch November 1.

You can’t sell anything these days without a robust SEO strategy, and if you want to “generate new, organic traffic, you need to start immediately, according to the BigCommerce report.

Don’t forget to add gift cards to your merchandise mix, whether online or in-store. Other extras that make consumers want to shop with you include free gift-wrapping services. For online shoppers, consider adding some gift wrapping to packages with over a certain amount of sales.

Customers shop where they feel valued—and one way to do that is to reward them. Make sure you have a loyalty program in place that syncs online and in-store purchases.

Community Marketing

If you own a local physical business, whether it’s a store, a restaurant or a salon, or gym, etc., there are several ways you can boost your holiday sales. Consider teaming up with other nearby businesses to host a holiday shopping event, like sidewalk sales, and offer discounts to each other customers.

Does your community host holiday-related events? Then, join in the festivities, whether that’s buying a booth, being a sponsor, donating money or merchandise, or volunteering.

Consider hosting VIC (very important customers) events. In the past, business owners would invite their best customers to these events. But these days, consider your customer demographics. For example, would older people or moms with kids prefer shopping when the store isn’t crowded with people?

Make it Festive

Don’t forget the holidays are a time to celebrate. So, decorate your store and your website appropriately. If you have a store, play holiday music, snacks (pre-packaged are best for COVID-wary customers).

Consumers are busy. And online stores are always open, so think about extending your hours or operation. Be sure to promote your new holiday hours in your store, online, and in your Google My Business listing.

Finally, make it urgent. Everyone is shopping on a deadline. And this year, Hanukkah starts November 28, only three days after Thanksgiving. Offer time-sensitive promotions, all season long.

It’s a lot, and you may need help figuring it out. A SCORE mentor can help guide you through the journey. Find one here.

About the Author(s)

 Rieva  Lesonsky

Rieva Lesonsky is president and CEO of GrowBiz Media, a custom content and media company focusing on small business and entrepreneurship, and the blog SmallBusinessCurrents.com.

CEO, GrowBiz Media
black couple wearing masks and holding presents while christmas tree shopping