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12 lessons ecommerce businesses learned this holiday season

Online holiday sales rose again in 2015, with ecommerce businesses seeing a 20-percent increase over 2014 holiday revenue, according to MasterCard Advisors. Clearly, that is good news for online merchants. But there is always room for improvement. Dozens of etailers and ecommerce experts share 12 lessons they learned this past holiday season.

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1. Plan your holiday marketing efforts early (before November). “My number one tip is to prepare your Christmas campaigns in September, or earlier,” says Brock Murray, director of Web marketing, seoplus+. “It may be hard to believe, but every December we get new clients who expect to launch a campaign from scratch and get results by the holiday shipping date. And it's just not realistic. Not only is it too short of a window, but you're competing against those who have planned ahead and done it right.”

“Start planning your online holiday execution no later than mid-summer,” says Richard Armour, senior director of multichannel operations at GameStop. “This should include laying out your online experience across all channels, meeting weekly with key stakeholders and communicating sales and traffic projections with IT, Warehouse and Order Verification departments. This will enable them to plan for capacity needs and staff accordingly,” he says. Armour also advises businesses to “update [their] Black Friday and Cyber Monday landing pages [for SEO] several months before the holidays, to include top performing keywords.” That way you can “establish your ranking well before the holiday time period.”

2. Ensure your store is properly stocked. “Stock up on bestsellers,” says Vladimir Ermakov, CEO, GlobeIn, an online marketplace and subscription service that sells a mix of handcrafted products. “We had to re-order many things last minute, and pay extra for expedited shipping or miss out on potential sales.”

3. Make sure your site can handle the additional holiday traffic. “Testing the limits of your system for serious spikes in volume is [critically] important,” says Brendan O’Brien, cofounder and chief evangelist, Aria Systems, an enterprise billing company. “Most CIOs have a plan for outages; remember to test the spike volume, on the backup systems as well.”

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4. Think mobile. “According to IBM Watson Trend, our shopping insights benchmark tool, Cyber Monday mobile traffic exceeded desktop, accounting for 57.2 percent of all online traffic, an increase of 15.2 percent over 2014,” says Justin Norwood, product strategist, IBM Watson Trend. “Mobile sales were also strong, with 36.2 percent of all online sales coming from mobile devices, an increase of nearly 30 percent over last year. These statistics underscore a significant shift in the way that shoppers are buying.”

5. Personalize your holiday email campaigns. “We ran a short personalized email marketing campaign this [holiday] season, and although the data is still incomplete, our initial takeaways show that personalization is going to be a huge driver of repeat purchase rates and improved ROI for the next holiday shopping season,” says Lindsey Murray, director of acquisition marketing, BrandShop.

“Email personalization is a very hot topic right now. While most advertisers are still using the historical ‘batch and blast’ method due to the lack of data and segmentation tools, our initial tests have shown that personalization leads to a tremendous growth in open rates, click rates and conversion rates,” she says. “Personalized email marketing will be the top growing marketing channel next season and presents a huge opportunity for online retailers.”

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6. Include Instagram in your marketing mix. “Instagram marketing was hot this holiday season,” says Erika Jolly Brookes, CMO, Springbot, an ecommerce marketing platform. “With the introduction of Instagram ads, new photo shape formats and an increase of daily users, you won’t want to neglect this platform as part of your holiday strategy. While you can’t post clickable links in image captions, you can make your profile ‘shoppable’ by linking to a targeted landing page in your bio. When you post a photo that features one of your items, include something in your caption to the effect of, ‘Like this vase? Link in bio!’”

7. Remember that consumers are looking for deals. “From onsite to email, competing means leading with a bargain,” says Lauren Freedman, president, the e-tailing group. “[Online] retailers continue to serve up deals at an unprecedented cadence. Thus shoppers have come to expect that every purchase will have an attached promotion code, coupon or associated markdown.”

Just make sure that when you offer consumers a deal, or discount or promo code, that it’s easy to use.

“Create a unique landing page(s) for deals,” says Colin Tracy, CTO, Chelsea’s Boutique. “If a customer can't find the deal right away, it may be a lost sale. Consumers don't want to search, they want the deals laid out in front of them, immediately. If you can move them to a page with the daily or monthly deals, they are more likely to make a purchase.”

[ Related: 12 easy ways to lose your ecommerce customers ]

8. Offer holiday promotions the week before Thanksgiving. “Start sales before Black Friday,” advises Angie Stocklin, cofounder and COO, One Click, an online eyewear company. “Shoppers are continuing to stretch their holiday seasons longer and longer, and gone are the days when you can wait and start holiday promotions on Black Friday. Even as an online only brand, we had more sales on Thanksgiving than ever before, and site visits were up 30 percent year-over-year for the week leading up to Thanksgiving.”

9. Don’t ignore Black Friday. “Black Friday [was] actually busier than Cyber Monday,” says Grayson Ervin, founder, CigarsFor.Me. “There are misconceptions that Cyber Monday is the busiest ecommerce [day] of the year. However, for the second straight year, Black Friday has resulted in about 40 percent more sales for us. We offered very similar savings on both days so that we could see which day our customers preferred purchasing on. Our theory is that many consumers have already spent their shopping budgets before making it to Cyber Monday.” Therefore, “online retailers shouldn't skimp on Black Friday sales in hopes of Cyber Monday being bigger. Try to capture as many sales as possible on Black Friday.”

10. Let customers know about critical shipping dates – and make sure you can deliver. “Setting reasonable and accurate shipping estimates for your customers is paramount,” says Kyle Therriault, vice president, business development, Auto Accessories Garage. “Communicate months in advance with key suppliers [and] vendors to [ascertain] their shipping capabilities. Adjust your shipping estimates for products ahead of time, and monitor their performance directly after the Cyber Monday rush to see if further adjustment is needed leading up to the week before Christmas.”

“Run a ‘last shipping day for Christmas delivery’ campaign,” says Ervin. “The world is always going to be full of last minute shoppers, myself included. People are too busy and they simply lose track of the calendar,” he explains. So “get in front of your customers and remind them when the last day to order for Christmas is. This sense of urgency results in a large amount of sales and the reminder is also appreciated by consumers.”

Also, be sure “to double check this date with your shipping carrier and your fulfillment center to make sure you can fulfill the promise you've made to your customers,” he adds.

11. Provide exceptional online customer service. “One lesson learned by etailers during the holiday season is the importance of responding to customers via social media,” says Bryan Segal, CEO, Engagement Labs, which provides social technology solutions to marketers. “Brand responsiveness is a key factor in providing solid customer service, particularly during the holidays. Answering [tweets, as well as Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest queries] in a timely fashion not only establishes a positive brand reputation but develops trust with customers.”

12. Make returning items easy – and free (if possible). “This season, we [saw] consumers demand more from the order return process, says Christine Boucher, director, Customer Contact Center, BrandShop. “Not only are online shoppers looking for hassle-free returns, pre-paid labels and extended return periods, they are now demanding online access to initiate and track returns along with follow-up confirmation emails of return credit,” she explains. So “it's crucial for retailers to deliver on these expectations because this is the final leg of the customer's journey, and therefore leaves a lasting impression that can work for or against the retailer.”

“Retailers know free shipping is critical for competing, but now free returns must be in consideration as well,” says Freedman. “The e-tailing group’s Mystery Shopping revealed that 19 out of 100 retailers allowed shoppers the luxury of free returns while 5 percent made it conditional. Retailers are wise to at least evaluate this model as shoppers find great appeal in risk-free shopping. This may turn a reluctant shopper into a prospect and could result in a long-term relationship.”

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