The massive consumer shift to digital has inspired holiday sales planning to come even earlier this year. COVID-19 is likely to limit foot traffic at brick-and-mortar retail even into the holiday season, and the businesses that understand how to manage their supply chains and provide excellent digital experiences may find themselves best positioned to capture the most sales.
“Many consumers are relying on online shopping even more, due to stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines. We expect that trend to continue this November and December,” says Brian Rainey, CEO of Gooten, an e-commerce technology platform that enables businesses to fulfill orders for on-demand products.
Preparing now can help ensure you have everything you need lined up and ready to go for online holiday sales.
1. Focus on your company’s supply chain.
Ensuring that your products are readily available to online shoppers during the holiday season is paramount. That means having your supply chain running as efficiently as possible well before holiday shopping starts.
“Manufacturing and shipping facilities worldwide have adapted to new COVID-19 health guidelines, including reducing staff, sanitizing equipment and work areas and maintaining proper social distancing protocol,” says Rainey. “Operating under these regulations while there is an increase in e-commerce orders has and will continue to put a strain on the entire e-commerce supply chain.”
One of the best actions any online retailer can take to mitigate strain on fulfillment and shipping partners is to create a sales forecast, believes Rainey.
Ecommerce retailers should expand their customer service teams now to be prepared for the influx of holiday sales.
—Sturgeon Christie, CEO, Second Skin Audio
“Our manufacturing partners require us to provide them with sales forecasts so they can estimate staffing and production times on a quarterly basis,” he says. “We send a report forecasted by product, and sometimes SKU, based on historical growth, trends and known new business. We also add a buffer on top of that for unexpected sales campaigns or spikes from our partners’ businesses.”
A holiday production and shipping schedule has become a necessity for Lucy Kelly, owner of jewelry company bel monili.
“Many of the products we rely on, such as shipping mailers and jewelry findings, come from overseas, even if we are purchasing from American suppliers,” she says.
“COVID, combined with strained trade relations with some countries, has significantly delayed shipments of supplies that have become vital to our business as we move to an online-only, or primary, model for sales," says Kelly. "I suggest that retailers look back at their past holiday seasons to estimate a predicted number of sales and order their materials and supplies, giving additional time for arrival.”
2. Build up your website.
“Like order volume, website traffic is also going to increase during the holiday season,” says Rainey. “If a website loads too slowly or is too confusing to navigate, customers will get frustrated and shop elsewhere.
"Be sure to execute any website changes by the end of September," he continues. "You don’t want to tinker or test your site during October through December when it should be running smoothly.”
Check with the hosting company for your website to ensure that your site is on a server that will be able to handle the increased holiday traffic. A slow-moving website will result in abandoned shopping carts and lost sales.
To help ensure holiday ordering goes as smoothly as possible, also update your website’s FAQ page.
“It’s important to make sure customer questions are answered in a timely manner and appropriately,” says Rainey. “Save yourself the headache of individually responding to customers by updating your FAQ or Help page with commonly asked customer questions and answers.”
3. Plan holiday promotions now.
“Take the time in August to research and plan out your promotional holiday calendar so you aren’t drafting social media posts the night before a promotion,” says Rainey. “Decide on what kind of marketing you want to do, such as free shipping, promotional codes, percentages off and flash sales and giveaways. Then plug your promotional schedule into your calendar and plan and schedule accordingly.”
4. Focus on customer service.
Without superior customer service, you’re not likely to stand out in the holiday online sales arena.
“Online shoppers have come to expect incredibly fast customer service response times," he says. "Without a robust customer service team or someone constantly fielding customer questions, the overall customer experience can suffer.”
Christie uses live chat on his website, finding it to be an effective way to answer customer questions. During the holidays, he will be increasing the number of customer service agents he has monitoring the live chats.
Christie suggests having customer service reps trained and in place well before the holiday sales season arrives.
“These are unprecedented times, and customers want to feel valued and heard. Offering excellent customer service during the holiday online sales season is critical. And the only way to do that is with enough assistance.”
5. Provide a direct shipping option.
Since many people will be doing their gift buying online (and with social distancing possibly still required), many online retailers are finding that customers welcome direct shipping options.
“Consider gift wrapping items or at least making the box the item comes in look unidentifiable, so that the person receiving it won't know what's inside,” says Christie. “It's also smart for online retailers to offer customers the option to send a message with the items they purchase.”
When you send directly to the recipient, Rainey recommends setting shipping expectations with buyers.
“Most shipping providers state that it is the sole responsibility of the customer to notify a gift recipient of a pending delivery to ensure that packages are not lost, stolen or damaged,” he says.
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