Improve Your Online Holiday Sales

Selling products online? Smart marketers will follow these six tips to increase online sales and profits this holiday season.

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By Kim T. Gordon

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It's no secret that online sales are expected to break all records this holiday season. Will your company reap the rewards? Take time today to give your website a tuneup using these six smart marketing tips:

1. Improve customer satisfaction. Customer satisfaction, more than price, drives online purchase decisions, according to a new study of 11,000 online consumers by research company ForeSee. The study evaluated such factors as price, merchandise selection and overall site experience (the look and feel, navigation, function, performance and site capabilities). While price was shown to have a positive affect on satisfaction, loyalty and buying behavior, it was rarely the key determinant of customer satisfaction. Above all, price never ranked as the deciding factor in whether a purchase was made. The sites that scored best in the study--and had 36 percent higher conversion rates--scored well when all the customer satisfaction elements were considered. So rather than slash your holiday prices, you'll most likely increase sales and profits if you take the time now to improve customer satisfaction instead.

2. Design for women shoppers. Since women influence more than three-quarters of all U.S. household expenditures, it's not surprising they're assuming the dominant position as internet shoppers. According to The State of Retailing Online, an annual study conducted by Forrester Research, you can expect to see steep growth in online sales in several retail categories this year--including cosmetics, fragrances, over-the-counter medications, jewelry and luxury goods, flowers, cards and gifts--thanks to the growing acceptance of online shopping by women. Even in online areas that have typically been male-dominated, such as electronics and home improvement products, a large percentage of the purchase decisions are now being made by women.

To increase holiday sales from women shoppers, it's important to create a shopping experience that mimics what they've grown accustomed to finding offline. Clothing e-tailers should group entire outfits together, for example. Other e-tailers should take care to include full product descriptions and helpful, in-depth information, from size charts to maps.

3. Make shopping easy. Want to know a major reason shoppers abandon one site in favor of another? They simply can't find the products and information they're looking for. To help shoppers find exactly what they want quickly and easily, add an online search facility to your website. Also, consider providing online customer service in real-time, at least during regular business hours. With real-time customer service, shoppers with questions can get immediate answers and continue through the purchase process--rather than leave to shop elsewhere.

If you're a brick-and-mortar retailer with an online presence, it's essential to ensure smooth crossover for multichannel shoppers. Your customers should enjoy the same positive experience whether they buy online or simply research products online and then choose to buy in your brick-and-mortar store.

4. Reduce cart abandonment. Shipping charges are among the biggest barriers to online sales, and a wide array of e-tailers will be offering free shipping this holiday season. You can jump on the bandwagon with free shipping or, at the very least, change the way you post your shipping charges on your site. Consumers often complain that shipping charges aren't calculated until final checkout. This leads to high rates of cart abandonment. You can eliminate this sales barrier by making information on your shipping and any other fees accessible from the main page of your site.

Do you offer multiple payment options? Studies have shown that sites with as many as four or more payment options experience higher conversions. As you prepare for the upcoming holiday sales season, look for ways to reduce cart abandonment and increase conversions by adding additional payment methods.

5. Reach out to current customers. This is an excellent time to reach out to your in-house database with e-mail offers. Roll out a new customer rewards program (see "Rewarding Loyal Customers" for just how to do that), or step up your existing program and communicate with your customer and prospect base as often as once per week starting now through the holidays. Provided you e-mail to a qualified opt-in list and include relevant offers, this will be a great way to get existing customers to think about you as a key source for holiday purchases and bring lapsed customers back into the fold.

6. Attract new customers. Without a marketing campaign to drive traffic, your site might just as well be invisible. This holiday season, get in the game by investing in paid search and online display advertising. A paid search marketing campaign guarantees your site will show up near the top of search results, instead of many pages down. Since the majority of searchers rarely get past the first page, using paid search can ensure your best prospects see your ad. Try local search, which is hot and getting hotter--and can cost significantly less than national advertising.

Buying ads on sites that are frequented by your target audience also yields strong results. For maximum click-through, the key is to choose sites that put your message in the proper context. These are sites--or specific pages on large sites--that your target audience looks to for information on the type of product or service you market. For example, a garden center that sells plants, tools and pottery could run a display ad on the Home and Garden page of the website of their local newspaper. And here's a final tip: Larger ads and ones that are surrounded by editorial content have been shown to perform better than small banners or ads that are segregated from editorial.

By fine-tuning your site and your marketing program today, you'll achieve your online goals and maximize sales this holiday season.

Kim T. Gordon
Kim Gordon is the owner of National Marketing Federation and is a multifaceted marketing expert, speaker, author and media spokesperson. Her latest book is Maximum Marketing, Minimum Dollars.

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