With its rush of intense customers, highly demanded products and tight deadlines, the holiday shopping season was a major boon for many online retailers. But why stop at the holidays? After working with online businesses for more than a decade, I quickly learned three steps that are the keys to sales success year-round—and immediately made them central to our business model when launching the Steals.com network of niche daily deal sites four years ago.
Preparing for—and learning from—the intensity of the holidays is a great way to create retail practices that work well any time of the year, while also ensuring that you’re 100 percent ready to win the holiday crowd next season. Here’s how to master this winning trifecta right now, and reap the benefits all the way through December 2013:
1. Keep your inventory in stock.
Experts often urge holiday shoppers to start looking for gifts early in the season, but the fact is, most people still wait until the last minute. A recent survey from PriceGrabber.com showed that 78 percent of consumers waited until December to do the majority of their holiday shopping. That made it doubly important to verify and replenish inventory for last-minute shoppers. Consumers do not backorder purchases during the holidays.
But it’s not enough to have a good inventory management system in place during the holidays alone. If shoppers grow accustomed to getting frequent out-of-stock notices or delayed shipments due to lack of inventory, they’ll quickly move on to another vendor that can deliver what they need. The post-holiday shopping season is your opportunity to build customer loyalty so it’s a no-brainer for them to return to you for any occasion, and still have your site at the top of their list when the major holidays roll back around. On our deal sites, for example, we pre-purchase inventory before every sale to ensure we always have the quantity we need. Bonus: This also allows us to ship quickly and maintain complete quality control, which can often be a challenge for any site that sells products from other vendors.
2. Eliminate shipping, returns and restocking backlogs.
The holidays are all about giving shoppers instant gratification. Consumers are searching high and low for the perfect gift; they don’t want to be stopped along the way by high shipping costs, unreasonable return policies, hidden restocking fees and long delivery times. That’s why our motto at Steals.com is “we send joy.” We want consumers to be delighted by their entire shopping experience, from the incredible products they discover on our sites, to the great way we handle customer service, to how quickly they receive their fabulous new purchase.
Having a 12/24 drop-dead date changes the importance of quick shipping this time of year, but consumers are starting to expect these kinds of perks all year round. In fact, ComScore found that nearly half of shoppers are not willing to wait more than five days for most of their purchases. Consider creating consumer-friendly policies (we offer next or same-day shipping, for example, and let consumers bundle purchases from across all of our four deal sites for a single shipping fee) and eliminate the barriers to getting your products into your customers’ hands.
3. Service, service, service.
Consumers can be somewhat irrational when feeling stress from the holidays, and the way your company reacts to this stress can make or break you. You may get extra bonus points for exceeding expectations during the holidays, but you’re certain to get penalized disproportionately if you drop the ball. During the holidays, it’s always a good idea to convey a heightened sense of urgency with employees. You never want a customer to tell you that your company ruined their holiday because the gift didn’t arrive on time, or they only noticed that it was damaged or the wrong item when their child opened it for the first time. We hold a companywide meeting the first week of December each year to make sure our team understands that consumers are at their most sensitive state, and reinforce the notion that it’s up to us to “save Christmas.”
But don’t stop there. If you can find a way to keep even the grumpiest shopper happy at the height of the holiday frenzy, you’ve got a customer service model that is sure to win them over anytime of year! Don't blame your customers when they’re angry or upset; serve them. Kill them with kindness, simply because you can. Put them on a pedestal now and you’ll become known for it, creating happy and, more importantly, loyal shoppers who will keep coming back for more —during the holidays, and well beyond.
OPEN Cardmember Jana Francis is the founder and president of Steals.com, a network of daily deal sites offering limited-time, hard-to-find discounts on the best brands for baby, kids, women, and more, with next-day shipping and fanatical customer service year-round.