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Summertime is here, the temperature is steadily rising and most people are lounging on the beach, not at all thinking about the holiday season … which is precisely why it’s a good time for e-tailers to get prepared.

The truth is, while many consumers put off holiday shopping until December, for most people it starts much earlier -- and brings with it a number of opportunities to those who prepare in advance.

Typically, holiday shopping is not an enjoyable experience for the average consumer: long lines, out-of-stock products, shipping deadlines, crowds, the stress of selecting the “perfect gift”… you name it. Because of this, the e-commerce industry has seen a massive shift in holiday shopping, and revenue. According to comScore, consumers spent approximately US$ 37 billion on holiday shopping in 2011 -- up about 15 percent since 2010.

And so with this greater demand, comes greater opportunity. By using customer experience optimization to improve your website with multivariate testing and real-time personalization, you can not only provide your customers a quick, streamlined, stress-free and even helpful online shopping experience, but also gain valuable insights into their behaviors for future marketing. The result for you is improved conversion rates, an increase in average shopping cart purchases and overall consumer loyalty.

Here are four things you should consider now in order to optimize your customers’ holiday shopping experiences and increase holiday sales as a result:

1. Santa Claus is Never Late - Your Products Shouldn’t be Either

When it comes to holiday gift buying, consumers are on an even stricter deadline than usual. Do your part to reassure customers that their gifts will arrive on time with things like guaranteed delivery dates, custom fulfillment options and online order tracking.

The good news is that you can use multivariate and A/B testing to reveal whether your shipping options are a pain point for customers and, if so, update them prior to the onrush of deadline-sensitive holiday shoppers.

There are a number of variables you may examine here. Some common ones:

  • Are shipping choices and turnaround times clearly and prominently displayed, before and during the checkout process?
  • Do you offer shipping date guarantees?
  • If so, at what point do you communicate that?
  • Do you offer custom fulfillment options, such as delivery by a local store or fulfillment center?
  • If so, have you empowered customers to contact them directly by provide necessary information.
  • And finally, do you offer customers the ability to track their deliveries online?

If not, you are likely missing out on the 79 percent of consumers who claim they demand online delivery tracking from the e-tail sites they purchase from.

2. Make Checking Out Easy

Shopping cart abandonment is ubiquitous among e-commerce sites: buyers get easily distracted and confused by extraneous information, put off by complicated registration forms and process, or surprised by unexpected price changes or out-of-stock messages during the checkout process. This could be even more detrimental during the holiday season when budgets are tight and time is precious.

According to Forrester Research, the top reasons shoppers abandon their carts are because shipping and handling costs are too high and/or were listed too late in the checkout process, they’re not ready to buy, they encounter unexpected product price increases, they’re saving items to buy later, and/or they leave to conduct price comparisons.

Because these issues are so prevalent, there are a number of known fixes. Start by using multivariate testing to identify which combination of shopping cart elements are helping you and which are hurting your conversion rates.

How do things like the existence of hidden shipping costs, lack of early shipping cost estimates, out of stock items and lengthy registration forms affect overall conversions? Would reduced or free shipping increase the number of conversions? Are you telling visitors upfront when items are out of stock, or are you waiting to spring that on them when they go to checkout? Are they forced to leave the shopping cart to read your return policy when it strikes them that, “I’m not sure whether Aunt Susie is a size 4 or a 6 -- I wonder if she’ll be able to return this?” The list of variables that create a good (or bad) checkout experience goes on and on.

Based on the data gathered in testing, you can optimize your checkout process to reflect the most popular combination of variables. For example, if testing reveals that last-minute or lengthy registration forms are a primary issue, you may decided to replace those with auto-filled forms for return visitors; let new users login with their social media accounts instead of filling out a new form, or simply provide guest checkouts.

You can prod hesitant consumers toward commitment by adding a progress indicator to show them exactly where they are in the checkout process, and introducing eye-catching, focused call-to-action graphics -- including a “save for later” button -- in order to salvage a sale.

3. Use Cross-Selling and Up-Selling to Offer Customers Helpful Gift Ideas and Increase Your Average Shopping Cart Size

One thing that’s for certain is holiday shoppers are open to suggestions. It’s difficult buying things for other people, after all, so who doesn’t want a little help? Think of cross-selling and up-selling as your site’s personal holiday shopper.

Although cross-selling and up-selling are both maximized by the amount of historical data you have about a visitor, it’s important to remember that during the holidays, return visitors are often shopping for others, not for themselves. So, make sure your targeting engine is not set up to promote products based on past purchases or activity. Instead, target based on items they have browsed, clicked or added to their cart, or favorites from the past few weeks.

Whether visitors are new or return, “wisdom of the crowd” endorsements can be particularly useful for up-selling and cross-selling relevant products. One approach is called item affinity, which selects recommendations based on the past habits of visitors with similar interests: “Visitors who viewed this, also viewed that.”

You can also personalize offers in real time based on users’ current browsing activity. If a customer is looking at a pair of shoes for his wife, for instance, try offering a matching belt and pocketbook. Or, recommend a Bluetooth to the person considering a mobile phone. Don’t, however, offer competing products that distract the customer away from a purchase. This might be the case if a customer is viewing an iPhone and you recommend they look at a Blackberry. That just confuses them.

4. Offer Holiday-Themed Specials

No matter how well your website functions, you’re missing out on sales if you’re not getting into the holiday spirit. After all, one thing customers do enjoy about holiday shopping is the atmosphere created by brick and mortar retailers: holiday music, décor and overall good cheer abound. While you can’t duplicate that on your site, you can compete with it by offering daily specials that keep their spirits lifted.

Begin determining what type of specials customers best respond to now by testing current offers and content. Once you know what format and locations are most effective, develop specials that speak to holiday needs. And remember that specials must appeal not just to the customers you already know, but to a wider audience that might be visiting your site for the first time. If you begin displaying these specials early enough -- after all, the stores begin advertising for the winter holidays around Halloween -- you’ll have plenty of time to test your efforts and update your offers in real time based on noted user preferences.

Title image courtesy of photopixel (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: To read another of Mark Simpson's monthly columns:

-- Taming Fickle Mobile Shoppers with Customer Experience Optimization