August 9th Clinic Notes

NOTES: These are the notes for our interactive August 9 clinic on MEC Merchandising Calendar for the 2006 Fall and Holiday Season. The recording of the event will be posted here in a few days.

What are the best ways to prepare for and take advantage of the upcoming holiday retail season?

In preparing our five-month merchandising calendar, we asked ourselves the following questions:

  • While every online retailer knows that the eight weeks before Christmas is the busiest buying period of the year, are they prepared…right down to individual product promotions?
  • Are fast growing companies certain that their technologies and platform are ready for a significant spike in sales?
  • Are additional customer service people going to be available?
  • Are marketing groups preparing promotions and PPC campaigns to take special advantage of this unique period in the year?

>> Preparing for the major retailing seasons, and understanding the advantages and disadvantages faced by online retailers.

Traditional shopping seasons have a significant impact on sales, and the industry or sector in which you do business will determine which seasons are most important to your business.

For instance, if you sell flowers online, you know that Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day are important dates on your marketing calendar.

However, for most online retailers, the eight weeks before Christmas are absolutely key.

If your business can take advantage of the pre-Christmas buying season, then you should be preparing and budgeting for your marketing plans now.

What is the busiest shopping period?

Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving and is traditionally the day that retailers emerge out of the red and into the black (profitability).

While there have been years when Black Friday has been the largest-volume buying day before Christmas, the latest figures, from 2004, show us that it’s the last Saturday before Christmas Day that takes top position as the busiest shopping day.

However, even if Black Friday takes second spot, we should take heed of the fact that a very significant amount of holiday shopping is taking place from the last week of November onwards.

Here are the figures for the top 10 shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas:

Top Ten Shopping Days
2004 2003
1. Saturday, December 18 1. Friday, November 28
2. Friday, November 26 2. Saturday, December 20
3. Saturday, December 11 3. Friday, December 26
4. Saturday, December 4 4. Tuesday, December 23
5. Thursday, December 23 5. Saturday, December 13
6. Friday, December 17 6. Monday, December 22
7. Wednesday, December 22 7. Sunday, December 21
8. Tuesday, December 21 8. Friday, December 19
9. Wednesday, December 15 9. Saturday, November 29
10. Friday, December 24 10. Saturday, December 27

What You Need To understand: The Top 10 Shopping Days before Christmas are spread out over an eight week period, starting at Thanksgiving.

Weekly Distribution of Holiday Sales
2004 Holiday Sales
Sunday, November 21 Saturday, November 27 13.30%
Sunday, November 28 Saturday, December 4. 16.70%
Sunday, December 5 Saturday, December 11 18.20%
Sunday, December 12 Saturday, December 18 22.50%
Sunday, December 19 Saturday, December 25 19.10%
Sunday, December 26 Saturday, January 1, 2005 10.30%
2003 Holiday Sales
Sunday, November 23 Saturday, November 29 14.50%
Sunday, November 30 Saturday, December 6. 14.20%
Sunday, December 7 Saturday, December 13 16.60%
Sunday, December 14 Saturday, December 20 20.10%
Sunday, December 21 Saturday, December 27 20.60%
Sunday, December 28 Saturday, January 3, 2004 4.10%
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Source: International Council of Shopping Centers

While online shopping mirrors the same seasonal fluctuations experienced by their offline counterparts, e-retailers face some unique challenges and advantages.

  • Shipping costs and final shipping days before Christmas may limit or add costs to last-minute online shopping.
  • Concerns about the complexity and possible cost of returning unwanted gifts may present a barrier to some buyers.
  • The ability to send e-Certificates in advance or at the last moment provides e-retailers with a tremendous advantage. These gift cards can be sent by email at no cost and minimal effort.

>> Case Study – ExteriorAccents.com

As an example of how seasonable fluctuations can impact marketing activities, costs and sale during the pre-Christmas shopping period, we looked at the experience of one of our research partners, ExteriorAccents.com. Exterior Accents serves the consumer gardening market, offering a variety of garden decorative items.

Seasonal Variations in PPC Metrics
2005 Seasons Click Through Rate Cost Per Click Conversion
Spring 1.98% $0.08 0.06%
Summer Peak 2.44% $0.09 0.68%
Fall 1.96% $0.14 0.66%
Holiday Peak 2.26% $0.23 1.47%

What You Need To understand: Key Pay per Click Metrics can vary a great deal between seasons. It is essential that you keep an eye on your cost per sale and profitability – and adjust your seasonal PPC strategies accordingly.

>> Merchandising Calendars

During the course of our research we developed our own merchandising calendar. This may be a useful tool and we suggest you use it to more efficiently plan your marketing strategy this year.

If you do not have the calendar, you may download it here.

Online giant eBay has also published a merchandising calendar that allows their seller community to know of trends in advance and prepare for specific seasonal promotions:

http://pages.ebay.com/sellercentral/calendar.html

Even if you do not sell on eBay, this may be a good resource to monitor what is selling online, and when to promote specific products.

KEY POINT: By planning specific email, search engine, and site promotion campaigns around peak consumer spending periods, you can maximize your online sales.

>> Guidelines

We’ve compiled 15 suggestions for optimizing natural buying trends online:

  1. Plan ahead. Use a merchandising calendar to help plan your marketing.
  2. Use “downtime” to get ready for the peak season. Often we have seen major retailers encounter site problems, customer service snafus, or major fulfillment problems during November and December. Plan ahead during your slower months to make sure you will be ready. If you want to build a new site or implement some new software plan to do it during the slower summer months. Don’t wait until August to begin a major site overhaul.
  3. Pay attention to product-specific seasonal trends. In addition to monitoring when online sales are peaking, try to determine which types of items are selling when. Focusing your marketing efforts around what consumers are looking for can be one of the best ways to improve conversion.
    • eBay provides a unique snapshot of what is selling in their Marketplace at http://pulse.ebay.com
    • By the same token, you can also research Amazon.com’s Top Sellers by category.
    • Finally, keep an eye on future areas of potential growth by paying attention to web sites like TrendWatching.com.
  4. Take a walk through your local shopping center during the next holiday. Notice how they are displaying sale information, getting shoppers into their stores and working to increase the average purchase amount. Many of these tactics can also be applied online.
  5. Watch the big online retailers. Visit their sites often and note how they adjust their product selections, promotions, and offers throughout the year.
  6. Do not forget about the general “best practices” of web marketing. Often, making just a small change to your order process or changing the text on your home page can yield significant new revenues and should always take priority over a seasonal marketing campaign. Review our research brief archives for ideas.

    Be sure to review our recent 2006 Marketing Blueprint, which outlines a 15-step process for optimizing your marketing efforts all year long:

  7. Test critical product or service landing pages well in advance of uploading them to your site. Once those pages are live, you want to be certain that they have been full optimized to increase conversions and sales. See our brief, Optimizing Landing Pages 2006
  8. Understand that even minor changes across a number of pages in any purchase or subscription process can compound to have a significant impact on your final revenues and profits.

    See our brief, The Compounding Effect of Micro-Gains Tested

  9. If you have an affiliate program, be sure to provide your top affiliates with all the resources they need for the key shopping seasons. They are important marketing partners and you need to keep them informed to ensure their best performance during the days and weeks that matter most to your business.
  10. Diversify your offer(s) so that you always have product that is in season. Even non-retail products are subject to seasonal buying fluctuations. If all you sell is snow skiing equipment, you may be missing out on valuable purchasing activity during your off-season. For example, you might consider also carrying mountain bikes or water skiing gear.
  11. Update the main sale or offer on your website to match the current season. This should be done on a regular basis, perhaps monthly. Shoppers who notice that your site and offers change frequently will be encouraged to return often.
  12. Create a Gift Registry. This will ultimately spur holiday gift shopping. If you have merchandise that is suitable for a wedding registry, implement this as well. You may be able to use this registry technique to create a natural, viral sales attractor for your site.
  13. Offer Electronic Gift Cards. This will dramatically increase your ability to sell during the holiday season, even at the last minute. They can be delivered via email in seconds and are perfect for last-minute shoppers.
  14. Develop email and newsletter campaigns to support and drive your web site sales, and take full advantage of the attention and loyalty of your subscribers.
  15. While retail businesses often benefit the most from holiday seasonal spikes, even service-oriented businesses can take advantage of seasonal trends by creating offers suitable for gift-giving. Tailor your own offers to meet the unique needs of your customers.
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