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Tis the Season

It's All in the Timing

There is more to making the most of the holidays than having the products everybody wants. Shipping policies and procedures, timing, site design, payment options, sourcing and more all play roles in getting the most from the year-end opportunity. Of them all, timing may be the most vital. Experts and experienced sellers all sing the same tune: Start early.

"You have to start very, very early," stresses Hess. "Online, people tend to shop early, so we start about October 15." Why so soon? Hess explains that his listings generally run 10 days. "If we start October 15, those seemingly early auctions will end October 25, the following ones will end November 3 and so on," he says. "We'll have only six to eight cycles to take full advantage of the Christmas holiday [season]."

Others say October is late. "Theoretically, it starts on Thanksgiving, but there's a lot of planning that starts before then," says Joseph T. Sinclair, author of eBay Business the Smart Way. "If you don't plan, you're going to get caught short. You won't know whether to promote something because you won't know whether you're going to get it in stock. September should be the target [planning] date for the [holiday shopping] season, so everybody's ready to go in November."

Early is the time to line up a trusted source of supply, especially for items you think will be your best movers. "Make sure you have reliable suppliers who are going to deliver when they say they will," stresses Schepp. "What could be worse than trying to put your listings up on December 15 because the product you were promised by November didn't show up [on time]?"

Another key early task is staffing. "This is not a time to scrimp," says Schepp. "You might have to hire people to get your shipments out, and those are things you don't want to be putting in place the first week of December. You want to make sure you have everything ready to go."

You may also want to change your look and feel. "Have your webmaster dress up your pages with a Christmas theme instead of using your normal template for your [item listings]," suggests Sinclair. One specific suggestion is to take advantage of the eBay gift icon. The wrapped-gift logo tells shoppers you can help them check an item off their to-do list by gift-wrapping their purchases and mailing them directly to gift recipients.

Shipshape Shipping
Offering gift-wrapping and delivery to a gift recipient can be a powerful word-of-mouth tool for expanding your marketing, says Barbara Weltman, a small-business consultant and author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Starting an eBay Business. When the wrapped gifts arrive, recipients will be exposed to your business, Weltman says. "This is an opportunity to reach people who aren't your customers, and perhaps gain new customers."

You may want to offer free shipping on Buy It Now items, says Schepp. "If you offer it strictly for Buy It Now customers, you're giving them a little bonus, and you're also encouraging people who want to get their shopping done and don't want to wait five or six days for your [listing] to end."

Whether you decide to offer free shipping or not, make sure you ship sold items quickly, says Kitchener. "The main thing we do is ship fast, especially at Christmastime," he says. "You get all kinds of people with deadlines." Dangerous Threads ships via the U.S. Postal Service and FedEx Ground, and usually ships items within 24 to 48 hours, which gives most shoppers enough cushion to make sure their items arrive in time for the holidays.

Because of those deadlines, take extra care to clearly explain shipping policies in your listings. Consider how you could simplify your shipping policies to make everything as fast and easy as possible for the hurried gift-purchaser. Says Hassler, "We include a standard shipping rate to the U.S., Canada and other international locations so people aren't slowed down by having to write to us and ask for [the shipping costs]."

When designing holiday listings, make sure your terms include accepting payment through PayPal. Faster payment means faster shipping, which makes it easier for shoppers to make their deadlines.

To make it even more likely that gift-buyers will make their deadlines, you can and should consider refusing to guarantee holiday arrival after a certain date. "People will buy things on the 23rd of December, expecting to have them before Christmas," explains Hassler. "That's been a problem, so we'll quit having [listings] a few days before."

Kitchener stops selling some products much earlier, particularly custom items. "We make some beautiful custom guitar straps," he says, "and we'll cut off the orders for those about three weeks before Christmas because of the shop time required to make the items." Be sure not to promise buyers items you can't deliver.

Hess employs a more complex solution. As the number of days before Christmas shrinks, Hess Fine Art reduces the lengths of its listings. From the usual 10 days, Hess goes to seven-, five-, three- and even one-day listings. The formula is simple: "Count the days to Christmas, subtract the days for shipping, and figure when those auctions will end."

Selling Policies
You should also consider your terms of sale. Start by thinking about adding more Buy It Now items. "Impulse buys are better that way," says Hassler, who does primarily Buy It Now sales during the holidays instead of the auction-style listings that are her usual method. "People don't want to wait a week to get a book that someone else may have on Buy It Now." To increase the speed of the sale, use Buy It Now with immediate payments through PayPal. The transaction is instantaneous and saves you critical time spent waiting for payment.

During the holidays, it may be more important for you to offer PayPal Buyer Credit, which allows your buyers to finance their purchases through GE Money Bank, the financial entity behind PayPal Buyer Credit. "During the rest of the year, it might not be worthwhile for some sellers," says Sinclair. "But during Christmas, when everyone is scrambling for money to buy gifts, they might [offer] it for one month."

When everyone is scrambling, they're more likely to buy the wrong item, one that doesn't fit, or one that just isn't what the recipient had in mind. For that reason, returns tend to go up during and shortly after the holidays. So it's important to keep a relaxed attitude toward customers who, after being relatively easy to please all year, have suddenly turned uncertain, demanding and difficult during the holidays.

"You have to be a little more liberal and a little more giving and caring," as Hess puts it. "You have to be more friendly and more forgiving, because clients are more emotional then in their buying habits."

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