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Guest Comment: How to make the most of the peak shopping season

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The inevitable cuts in budget that have come in the past year have meant that, to achieve a stable profit, savvy retailers have focused their marketing budgets on maintaining high service levels for their existing customers instead of investing time and spend on acquiring new ones. Christmas however, is a different proposition all together. The peak period presents the ideal platform for etailers to attract new customers easily with a fraction of the usual new business budget.

The good news for etailers is that most online shoppers at Christmas turn to the web to reduce hassle and, as a result, buy in bulk. The bad news is that in these testing times it is price that tends to pull a customer to a site initially. It follows that you should invest time in PR and marketing to make sure your special offers are visible in online communities, price comparison sites and Google.

Once you have gained this initial traffic to your website you are halfway there, but still a long way from winning the race. As at any time of year, be sure to make the shopping experience as easy and hassle-free as possible. Advertise suitable gifts for each family member you can think of in a fun way. Make clear the discounts which are available when buying in bulk, and each additional discount as the shopping basket gets bigger.

Look at your competitors' shopping experiences and special offers and understand what makes you stand out. Consumers who are offered a seamless, value-added or otherwise engaging online shopping experiences will revisit, while those who are not have no reason to remain loyal.

The months leading up to the Christmas period are an excellent time for an audit to assess where your online shopping experience sits against the competition and what you can do to improve your offering.

Convenience



Providing convenient, time efficient solutions to your customers' demands is key at this time of year. Naturally, gifting is the main reason ecommerce booms during the festive season — and online stores allow numerous opportunities for unique gifting experiences; a great 'gift finder' will go a long way to allowing your customers to find a product that works for them.

Multiple shipping destinations, gift cards and gift wrap are also a must for satisfied customers. Why not sell physical gift cards online as well as emailable gift certificates for last minute purchasers? Try to think about how you can provide maximum convenience.

Take into consideration how consumer needs may differ from the usual at Christmas, with the increased demand for quick and easy online purchases, gift wrapping, reliable and accurate delivery times and excellent customer service.

If you offer two delivery standards — express and regular — it's likely that there will be an increased demand for the express service as Christmas draws nearer so it is essential to make sure that warehouses are staffed accordingly. It is imperative that retailers work closely with carriers to ensure that parcels are picked up in good time and that there are no delays in despatch once a parcel has left the warehouse.

As well as an increased demand for express delivery, demands on customer service and support will also increase. Consumers who ordinarily are happy to email you with queries and wait a few hours for a response will start to want more immediate answers and be more inclined to call. These increased demands should be supported by carefully planned staffing in the contact centre. If you offer support online, this should be considered in a similar light.

Also, the volume of returned goods will inevitably increase as you approach Christmas. It is imperative that these are processed quickly so that your customers have the opportunity to purchase alternative items and so you have the opportunity to return the items to the shelf in order to sell to other customers. Poor customer service in this respect can cause significant hassle for a customer who needs to buy a replacement item and could tarnish their image of your company, preventing orders further down the line.

Don't forget offline



Naturally, smart retailers should be offering their customer the option to buy online and pick-up in store but too often brands don't think of the relationship between online and offline in reverse.

UK retailers spend a fortune on bricks and mortar stores. It is imperative that once you get customers to come to them in the Christmas rush, you make the most of every single interaction you have. If you don't have the size or colour that a customer is looking for, your customer service staff should have access to the online inventory and be able to arrange order and shipment to the customer while they're still at the counter. And If you're also out-of-stock online but know that it will shortly be replenished you should be able to leverage your back order capability so that you can still take the order and advise the customer of the expected delivery date.

• Steve Davis is president of the European arm of ecommerce and multi-channel solutions specialist GSI Commerce.
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