Strategies for the Holiday Sales Crunch

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Visions of sugar plums may not be dancing in the heads of consumers just yet, but e-tailers are preparing themselves for a holiday season expected to leave fans of online commerce dancing in the aisles.

As a result of the repeat surge in online spending last Christmas, analysts predict a heightened level of demand again this year. This means that this holiday season should bring lots of repeat customers to last year's e-retailing stars as well as affording retailers, both new and old, an opportunity to win the allegiance of exuberant, first-time e-shoppers.

However, retailers planning to use the holiday season as an opportunity to acquire and retain customers is about as original as Santa Claus appearing in the local department store. The crowd noise among retailers should reach deafening levels as companies battle for online supremacy.

To embrace this holiday season's online challenges, retailers need to look at some of last year's consumer misgivings, such as poor customer service and missed delivery dates, to ensure stellar service for shoppers during this year's "season for giving." Here's an online marketing wish list that should allow retailers to enjoy a jolly holiday season:

• Learn from holiday seasons past. Anticipate, prepare and fulfill customers' expectations by continually reviewing and reinforcing the strength of your supply chain, stocking inventory and implementing a streamlined fulfillment process, including a creative, customer-friendly return policy.

• Keep your customers. Know your customers! Mine your data and take advantage of this knowledge. Understanding their buying patterns gives you the best chance of upselling additional products and services.

• Find new customers. You can find lots of new customers before the holiday crush if you take the time to offer value-added services other than discounts. Implementing features such as real-time customer service, and offering familiar physical world shopping perks such as free gift-wrapping, will elevate the comfort level of folks shopping online for the first time. Offer value-added incentives that separate you from your competition.

• Use tools to target smarter. For the first time, new direct marketing technologies such as transaction-enabled e-mail, animation and rich media can be used as part of a retailer's outreach to acquire and retain new customers.

• Find your partner. Look into reciprocal marketing opportunities with noncompeting retailers and cross-promote online and offline. For example, if you sell barbecue grills online, promote a premium meat product provider online or offline and have that provider do the same for you.

• Turn gift givers and gift getters into customers. Offer post-holiday coupons to entice customers to return to your site after the holidays.

• Make worlds collide. Have your online and offline operations work together to promote the benefits of your click operation and your brick storefront. Return policies, reward programs and discount offers need to be shared by customers of both worlds.

At this point last year, many retailers began caroling to the press about how they planned to achieve smashing success, only to be ill-prepared to hit the high notes by holiday time.

Despite a few missteps last year, retailers can find solace in knowing that overall, e-commerce appears to maintain a similar rate of transactions after the Christmas season spike. This means that of the millions of new folks who shop online each holiday season, many of them return to e-shopping.

But if retailers want to build true loyalty among these new customers, they will need to use service strategies and tactics that travel beyond pure price points. Remember, a great shopping experience will turn customers into marketers.

With the latest technology, service and fulfillment offerings, e-tailers should be able to deliver nothing short of a reliable and fun shopping experience.

• Sandra Robinson is president of Cybuy, New York. Reach her at

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