One of the things I like least when advising clients is telling them when they're at their busiest, that they're going to have to get busier. None-the-less, when the clients are online retailers, come summertime, that's what we're telling them-- get ready for the holidays. Frequently, they respond incredulously, "We're in the midst of "Back to School" and you're talking Christmas?!"
The short answer is "yes." By September, holiday campaign planning should be well under way. Testing needs to be completed by the end of September-- creative messages, landing pages and individual promotions need to be finessed and working by the end of October.
What has been described as "holiday creep," when bricks-and-mortar retailers start breaking out the red and green tinsel earlier each year, has its online equivalent-- only this time it's consumer generated. Oneupweb conducted a study tracing the 2006 aggregate shopping behavior of more than one million visitors to online retail sites. According to the data, holiday shopping traffic starts to increase around Halloween rather than the old benchmark of Thanksgiving.
The season starts in October
Clearly, in October, holiday shoppers are not ready to hit the malls, but online traffic shows that they're beginning to do their research. There are conversions to be had, relationships to be built and a sales process to be initiated, if online retailers are ready.
For online sites with bricks-and-mortar stores, the opportunities multiply. Early online traffic can influence later in-store traffic, if the online experience is a good one and the promotions are integrated throughout a range of marketing channels. With limited in-store shopping time, early online visitors are frequently planning their store visits by the products they find online, in the catalogs they receive, and the print, broadcast and online ads they see. They need to find a consistent, enticing message wherever they look.
November builds, dips and builds again
If 2006 is any indication, and we believe it is, early November will start looking like late November three to five years ago. Beginning the first week in November, our study saw a steady rise in traffic, conversions and sales. The days just prior to Thanksgiving experienced a slight dip, due most likely to travel and holiday preparation, traffic and conversions (although overall sales actually went up). The big sales days after Thanksgiving, Friday (Black Friday) and the following Monday (Cyber Monday) rekindled activity, and the needle kept rising until its peak on December 13.
The largest single rise in total sales, week-to-week, occurred the week after Thanksgiving (63 percent); while traffic, sales and conversions remained above early October levels until a week after Christmas.
December peaks, drops and keeps hangin' on
It would be easy to predict that online holiday sales would peak mid-December and then drop off dramatically once delivery dates became problematic. And indeed they do. But, as our study showed, there's more to it than that. Even on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, when sales and traffic are predictably low, conversions were remarkably high. The last minute holiday shoppers were quite active. Retailers facing last minute deadlines would do well to promote e-Gift cards during these times; a favorite of the last minute shopper.
The week after Christmas proved that the online holiday season still had staying power. Although traffic returned to pre-holiday levels, conversions and sales were still above October levels. These increases could not be explained by the redemption of gift cards, because, unlike others, our study credited the initial purchase of the gift card as a sale.
In other words, not only does the holiday season start earlier, it lasts longer-- more than 10 weeks, judging by the steady rise in traffic, conversions and sales beginning in mid-October.
Holiday marketing used to be a year-end sprint. Now, it's a marathon... and it takes an entirely different kind of training.
- Start earlier. Have your paid search team selected and in place by July or August.
- Extending the shopping season means budgets have to go farther. Bidding strategies will be crucial to make this work.
- "Back to School" season should also be testing season for your creative, landing pages and promotions. Make sure everything is tested and ready by mid-October.
- Use milestones to plan for peak volume. Multiply Halloween week volume by four; expect peak volumes of early December weeks to be about twice the volume experienced two weeks prior to Thanksgiving.
- Promote e-Gift cards late in December to extend your season.
- Get some rest now, spring isn't that far away.
For more details on how to get the most out of the holiday season, read the complete study, 2006 Holiday Online Retail Buying Trends, available at Oneupweb.com.
Lisa Wehr is president and founder of Oneupweb, an integrated online marketing firm. Read full bio.