Retailers optimize digital experience for maximum holiday help

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With this year's weak economy, the holiday season has become more impor­tant than ever to retailers, who earn most of their profits in the fourth quarter. To maximize the customer experience in a year when customers have less money to spend and more retailers are competing for attention, some retailers are finding that optimizing their digital experiences is a way to catch a customer's eye.

For Best Buy, this includes a new inter­active holiday microsite, located at www.AskABlueShirt.com. The site lets consum­ers send a digital note to Santa, which is forwarded to friends via e-mail, and read blog posts by Best Buy “Blue Shirts” about technology gifts. Topics include new trends in photo sharing, accessoriz­ing an iPhone and how to stay virtually connected to friends and family. Also, a Holiday Wiki was developed to collect consumers' favorite holiday traditions.

“The goal really is to connect customers with Blue Shirts on a more personal level than they have been able to in the store,” said Tara Tindall, a Blue Shirt at Best Buy. “We are posting information about questions that we know customers have these days. Times are tough, so we don't want customers to have to worry about if they are buying the right cable.”

Like Best Buy, The Athlete's Foot (TAF) also is upping its digital ante. This season, the shoe retailer launched the TAF Fan Club, an e-mail marketing initiative that links loyal shoppers with discounts, prod­uct news and special birthday offers.

Working with NexCen Franchise Man­agement, TAF launched the initiative in late October. Since the program went live on the TAF homepage, there have been more than 1,600 opt-ins through the Ath­lete's Foot Web site.

“We wanted to launch it before the holiday to give people who signed on an introduction and a welcome,” a 20% off coupon, said Darius Billings, director of retail brand marketing and merchandis­ing, NexCen Franchise Management.

Like TAF, Home Depot and Gap also are using e-mail to gain customers' attention this year. Home Depot promoted an e-mail alert for Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the biggest seasonal shopping days.

The Gap is sending e-mails with tools that help customers create wish lists that can be forwarded on to friends. Also, it has an e-mail coupon designed to be passed virally onto friends and family.

Yet, as retailers fight to get consumers to buy, it is still going to be a tough year. According to Davidowitz & Associates, e-commerce sales are expected to flatten his year — the first year of the past five that they will not have not grown.

“The biggest increase in holiday sales for the last five years has been in the online space, but this year sales went flat,” said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of David­owitz & Associates Inc. “For the first time, the weakness of the consumer has caught up with them. The two most important things are price and free delivery.”

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