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Tips to Harness Urgency in Online Sales

  |  October 5, 2011   |  Comments

Convincing bargain-shopping consumers that they will have to act fast to get their treasure takes a little trial and error.

Consumers have instant, regular, and repeated access to online deals on fashion, home goods, travel, and gourmet foods and they are loving it. You don't have to be a group deal or flash sale site to make urgency a priority and a strategy for your offering, but you can learn from the growing numbers of these successful sites.

EMarketer just released a study that details the growth of this relatively new form of e-commerce with highlights on the importance of email to trigger site visits and purchases. As any member of these sites will tell you, if site owners hit the right notes with a timely, targeted, and well-displayed reminder message, there is almost no barrier to the click and then just one short step to a sale.

The psychology behind this behavior is brilliant, and it's not just the urgency factor that makes these offers so enticing:

  • It's personal. It's done at my desk, on my timetable, without distraction.
  • It's an oasis moment in the middle of the day. I deserve this treat, this time just for me to fantasize about all the things I want.
  • It minimizes the commitment. It's not really a shopping spree if it's just this one shirt, blouse, or pair of shoes is it? (Even if it happens several times a week.)
  • So easy and convenient. One-click mentality; it comes right to my desk at work and then is delivered to me at my home or office. No driving to the mall or trying on clothes. No making time for shopping as it now fits into my day.
  • It's a deal. How can I pass it up? It validates my intelligence.
  • I'm a member. The faux exclusivity has its advantages including stored payment information.
  • No-risk return policies. This makes the decision easier.
  • They know me. Of course, they have data on what I buy!
  • Predictability. Something to look forward to every day, especially when they announce the upcoming sales of my favorite designers.
  • Urgency. No time to think about it or compare across offers. I am a woman of action and I am playing beat the clock against the unseen opponents for that fabulous bag.

Make sure before you adopt a full-on deal strategy that you consider it carefully and have the ability to fulfill on the promise. Nobody wants to wait weeks on weeks for their impulse purchase, or to be unable to return it or get it in the size or color they desire. You need patience for this game. Be willing to gather purchase data over time to finely segment users. Try various site constructs to minimize the obstacles to new members and test incentives for members to share and evangelize. Be ready to support mobile access if you want to reach your audience wherever they happen to be at the appointed deal hour.

This approach is largely a merchandiser's game - from the email subject line to the highlighted product to site design. Make sure you have the technical back end in place to ensure the regular and timely updates that your members will expect and that you have reliable access to a steady stream of desirable products. Employ a smart and tested email partner to deliver the daily trigger emails that will get your members to visit the site. Segmentation is critical as is the attractive design that showcases the product and whets the appetite.

Think long term and make sure the business model is sound. If your offering is a deeply discounted loss leader, then you better be confident that you can reap new customers with a lifetime value that justifies the initial discounting. In order to do that, you have to be able to scale, get repeat business, turn product over quickly while maintaining margins, and capture enough quality information to remarket successfully.

Does this sound complicated and hard? It should. The bigger players in this space have huge advantages in buying and other critical functions that create economies. Large, established, and more traditional e-commerce businesses have recognized the impact of flash and deal sites and have bought or bought into the model. GSI bought Rue La La. Nordstrom bought HauteLook. More recent entrants in this game have come from the monsters of e-commerce like Amazon (MyHabit) and eBay (Fashion Vault). It's a resource- and skill-intensive approach that is not suited to smaller players unless they are feeding a very specific niche and already have credentials with and access to that audience.

But just because you can't build the deal machine yourself doesn't mean you can't harness the power of urgency in your online sales. Convincing bargain-shopping consumers that they will have to act fast to get their treasure takes a little trial and error. Test some of the following:

  • Consider partnering with established deal or flash sites to get their cache and reach if you have a unique or desirable product to sell. This is a great way to introduce your brand to a ready buying audience.
  • Create preview pages for members or buyers before products go live on the site.
  • Hold special sales days just for members - Nordstrom is a master at this strategy.
  • Send targeted daily or regular deal emails to remain top of mind. Test everything in that email including the landing pages.
  • Provide limited-time-only promotion codes for best customers or members.
  • Consider charging a fee for "special" access or priority treatment to make it seem even more desirable.
  • Fully leverage social media across your site, in social channels and in email to encourage sharing of deal information among members and their friends.
  • Create limited inventory deals or inventory countdowns on the site - nothing like "only two left in your size" to force the issue.
  • Follow abandoned carts (cautiously) with special promotion offers.
  • Offer wish lists to bring the purchase closer to fruition.
  • Create a special deal section and link to it from highly trafficked places including social media.
  • Stay far away from the urgency-killers like out of stock or other delays in delivery, software downloads or updates of any sort, static site content, dead social sites, hoops to jump through including a lot of data capture or the need for hard-to-find codes, commodity products without any special sauce, or non-stored payment information.

Can urgency be a strategy? Judging by the meteoric rise of deal and flash sales of all types, it certainly can fuel sales. But in order to be a good strategy, it has to move your business in a positive direction, and unless you are an exclusive deal site, you probably want to incorporate this in a measured and judicious manner to gauge the business impact.


Robin Neifield

Robin is the CEO and cofounder of NetPlus Marketing Inc., a top 50 interactive agency established in 1996 to focus exclusively on online marketing and advertising best practices. Robin brings innovative strategy and a depth and breadth of marketing experience to the agency's practice and management. As one of the industry's pioneers, she is a driving force behind NetPlus Marketing's ongoing success with a diverse and discerning client base that considers online results critical to their business success.

Robin is a frequent speaker at national industry events, including ClickZ, internet.com, OMMA, Ad:Tech, SES, Online Marketing Summit, and Thunder Lizard conferences and is a sought-after resource for industry and business publications for her insight and advice on such topics as digital strategy, social media marketing, and behavioral targeting.

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