The 2000 Holiday Season: Are You Ready?

Each year, consumers and retailers look forward to the fourth quarter because holiday gift buying drives revenues through the roof. Predictions about a tremendous increase in online shopping portend a rosy revenue report. However, online retailers face a number of challenges to make this holiday season a success.

The Purdue University Retail Institute’s annual retail holiday spending forecast is predicting that online holiday spending will triple last year’s spending to exceed $6 billion. This tripling is expected to occur even while overall holiday spending in the U.S. as a whole increases just six percent. In other words, online shopping is gaining ground at the expense of offline shopping.

Although the amount of online shopping will increase, what will be bought will remain pretty much the same. Purdue forecasts that the biggest sellers online will be compact discs, videotapes, books, clothing, toys and games, and gift certificates. Of course, the overall increase in online spending has the potential to help all retailers.

So everything’s looking rosy in the online world?

Well, no. The Purdue study and a recent report by the Gartner Group point out challenges that have the potential of dropping a lump of coal into retailers’ holiday stockings.

The Gartner study found that very few online retailers are prepared to give good customer service. Yet making a few changes to the site can help shoppers move from the home page to a product page.

The tips that these reports suggest are familiar to most online retailers:

Speed of the site. The biggest problem reported by the Purdue survey is that sites are slow to respond. There are many reasons why sites are slow, and there are good solutions to most of them, starting with graphic design and continuing through to the choice of a hosting service.

Navigation. Make it easier for shoppers to find appropriate products. Ensure that you have a detailed site map giving an overview of the types of products offered and links directly to those sections. Web visitors are increasingly using the search function on sites instead of drilling down through layers of sections and subsections.

Product information. Online stores should provide an above-average amount of product information so shoppers can make sure a product is the one they want. One thing shoppers often want to know is whether a product is actually in stock and ready to be shipped out, yet many retailers don’t provide this information. Increased product information can reduce anxiety for the shopper and reduce exchanges and refunds for the retailer.

Product recommendations. Some shoppers know exactly what they want to purchase, while others need to be guided to a product appropriate for a friend or relative. Though we frequently think of using web personalization technology to guide shoppers, there are nontechnology approaches, too. A series of well-written articles covering the major product sections can give shoppers gift selection ideas. Of course, the articles should include links to the products mentioned in the articles.

Contact information. Many shoppers need a nudge just before making a big or important purchase decision. Even when the price is low, shoppers want to make sure that products they are considering have the right features. Providing an email address for customer support is one way to meet this need. Online chat and interactive browsing features require more resources but may be worthwhile for certain products if this added service closes more orders.

Shipping information. The cost of shipping can be a significant part of an online purchase in the minds of some shoppers. This makes it important for them to understand how shipping is calculated before they reach the last page of the shopping cart.

Order tracking. One of the biggest advantages the web has over mail order catalogs and other direct marketing techniques is the ability to let a shopper tap into the product order database. Shoppers know that we have the technology to provide order tracking, and they expect to be able to do it.

This is going to be an important holiday shopping season for online retailers. More consumers will be spending more money shopping online, and they will have higher expectations. If you can meet their expectations and fulfill their needs, you’re on your way to enjoying a prosperous holiday season.

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