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10 ways to prepare your online store for the 2016 holiday season

10 ways to prepare your online store for the 2016 holiday season

October is here, and you know what that means—jingle bells, tinsel, and "Silver Bells" playing on an endless loop inside your head. Sure, it may seem premature, but for online merchants there’s no such thing as “too early” when it comes to preparing for the biggest shopping weeks of the year.

How big, you ask? Well, according to the National Retail Federation, 20-40 percent of yearly sales for small and mid-sized retailers take place over the last two months of the year. What’s more, pundits predict a whopping 17.2 percent increase in holiday ecommerce sales in 2016, with consumers taking to the web earlier than ever to start their shopping.

All this is to say: if you wait until winter to hit play on your holiday prep, you’ll be missing out on a ton of potential business from shoppers who are raring to go before they’ve had their first bite of pumpkin pie. If you really want to make the most of the holiday shopping season, you need to be ramping things up now.

With that in mind, here are 10 holiday tasks you can cross off your list before the first frost. This way, come December, you won't be locked out in the cold. (And if 10 isn’t enough, take a look at the massive 101-point holiday checklist we put together last year!)


Test your site

The holiday rush will push your site to its technical limit; if you can’t stand the pressure, you’ll experience ecommerce’s most embarrassing and costly lump of coal: downtime. Services like LoadFocus and Locust let you swarm your site with millions of artificial users to see how your server performs. If the results aren’t good, talk to your hosting company about increasing your bandwidth.

Now is also a good time to test your site's load speed. According to a survey by Forrester Consulting, 47 percent of online consumers expect a website to load in under two seconds; failing to meet that threshold will cost you. Optimize your images, clear up your database, get your hands on the latest version of your theme, and you should be able to give Santa’s sleigh a run for its money.


Talk to your suppliers about increasing your inventory

Estimating how many orders you’ll receive and how much stock you need is part art, part science. Art, because developing an intuition for what people want to buy comes with experience. Science, because there’s still a lot you can glean from analytics and trend reports.

Start by taking a look at last year’s analytics. How many orders did you receive? Was there anything that flew off the shelves? Then broaden your search to what’s trending in your industry. Keep an eye on social media for products that are getting picked up and shared. Come up with some rough estimates, then talk to your suppliers about the increased demand you expect during the holiday season.


Get your holiday shipping sorted

Before you add that “free overnight shipping” banner to your site, take a look at how your shipping provider has performed in the past. If you’ve received complaints about shipping delays or the condition of delivered products, it might be time to cut ties with your current provider and find someone new to cuddle up to for the holidays.

Be sure to display shipping options and timelines prominently on your site. You might even consider creating a dedicated page for holiday shipping information. Remind customers about guaranteed-delivery dates across your site, but especially at checkout. Late delivery is never good, but it can be downright catastrophic around the holidays.


Consider hiring additional seasonal staff

The holidays are a chaotic time for retailers. Even if right now you’re a one-person operation handling everything with ease, there will come a day—probably right around the last week of November—when you just won’t be able to keep up.

To prepare for the surge, we recommend some proactive sandbagging (and by sandbagging, we mean identifying areas in your business that are prone to “leaks” and stationing someone there to prevent them). Make sure you have enough hands and brains to package orders, handle support requests, and keep on top of your marketing campaigns. If you need to hire a few extra people to fill the gaps, now’s the time to do it!


Create a holiday marketing calendar

You might be able to throw together a Halloween or St. Patrick’s Day marketing campaign on the fly, but Christmas is a whole other kettle of fish. To stay on top of all the important holi-dates, create a holiday marketing calendar and stick to it.

Map out your email campaigns, promotions, social media posts, gift guides, and blog articles in a single spreadsheet or Kanban board. Include the relevant details about when graphics and content need to be created, reviewed, and deployed (and who’s responsible for them). Refer back to your plan as December approaches to ensure you’re hitting all the marks.


Give some thought to your holiday ad spend

As an online merchant, you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to advertising options for your store. You’ve got AdWords, Facebook ads, sponsored content, affiliate marketing—the list goes on. That said, they don’t come cheap. Bids tend to get more expensive during the ultra-competitive holiday season, meaning the keyword you paid 60 bucks for in September might run you three or four times that in December.

A little forward planning will go a long way towards keeping your costs—and your sanity—in check. Do your research, choose the channels that align best with your demographics and budget, and make sure to track your ROI so you can make more informed decisions next year.


Create some new content

Content seems to be the first thing to go when merchants get busy, and believe us, you’re going to be busy as all heck once the holiday rush hits. That’s why it’s super important to create as much content as you can while things are still relatively calm. Nobody wants to be caught scrambling to write an eleventh-hour Black Friday email on Thanksgiving eve.

What kinds of things should you start preparing? In a word: everything. We’ve written before about how important email marketing is, and for a lot of merchants that will be a key channel. You’ll need a couple of emails for each promotion, plus your regular store newsletter and transactional emails. You can also queue up blog articles, social media posts, and landing pages for your promotions. Gift guides are another great idea that can both alleviate shoppers’ anxiety about finding the right gift and give your sales a boost.


Build your mailing list

Speaking of email marketing, the lead-up to the holidays is the perfect time to build your mailing list. Encourage visitors to sign up for your newsletter with a prominent call-to-action on your homepage and at the checkout. Consider using a popup to accomplish this: according to one study, switching from a sidebar form to a popup can increase email signups by as much as 1,375 percent!

If you’re looking for a sensational popup app that helps you build beautiful, on-brand popups, check out Pixelpop. Create a newsletter signup popup with a holiday twist, appealing to the holiday mindset with top-notch gift recommendations, exclusive sales and discounts. Then watch the email addresses come pouring in...


Get your product pages looking their holiday best

Want your products to shine brighter than Rudolph’s nose this holiday season? Then take some time to polish your product pages.

A good place to start is photography, which will have arguably the biggest impact. If your product images are low-res, poorly-lit, or taken on a flip phone, consider hiring a professional photographer to reshoot them (or brush up on your DIY skills). Be sure to include a variety of images and angles. If you want to get real fancy, look into creating some short-and-sweet videos to showcase your products.

Other improvements to your product pages include writing unique and accurate product descriptions, adding customer testimonials and reviews, displaying stock levels and availability, and emphasizing savings on discounted products. You can also use apps to offer “recommended” or “similar product” suggestions, and add a wishlist or “save for later” function to your store.


Put the polish on your return policy

Returns probably aren’t something you’re giving much thought to now—hey, you’ve got windfalls and wonderlands on the brain!—but a little foresight will save you a ton of grief once January hits and the returns start pouring in. (And they will come pouring in. In 2016, UPS processed more than 5 million returns in the first week of January alone.)

A good return policy should answer all the questions customers have about what happens if a purchase doesn’t work out. What can and can’t be returned? Who pays for shipping? How long will it take? Are there cut-off or black-out dates? (Many stores don’t process returns until a few days after Christmas to allow them to focus on end-of-year sales). A good return policy can also help ease customer anxiety and boost conversions, so it’s worth investing the time to get it right.


Putting a bow on it

We know it’s early, but in retail the holidays are more of a marathon than a sprint. It takes time to prepare all the necessary pieces to pull off a successful holiday season, so the more prep you can do now, the less chaotic November and December will be.

By all means, savour the pumpkin pie and falling leaves, but if your holiday plans aren’t already in motion, it’s time to get moving and join the frenzy. After all, Christmas is just 12 weeks away...

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