Kathy Eickenberg, who runs PurpleBearsShopnEarn.com, knows exactly what she is going to do this holiday season to ramp up her Christmas sales. One is start early; another is she has started a newsletter. She’s hopeful her Christmas ideas will help her move the teddy bears, arts and crafts, toys, children’s clothes and other collectibles and party supplies she carries on her site.
“I do try to read up on things and pay attention to various sources to find out what are considered the ‘hot’ products for the holidays and will definitely spend more time on the electronics, jewelry and toys sites since I assume they’re natural shopper favorites,” she says. She adds that she probably stands in the shadow of the “really successful” affiliates, but she’s proud and determined to learn as she goes. “I’m not really sure what to expect this year,” she says. “Sales have been improving, so we’ll see. Virtually all of my toy sales are around the holidays. It will be interesting to see how many toy sales will remain with Amazon or be done through Toys R Us, since they’re now separate.”
She also knows that any affiliate – with one site or one hundred – who sells gifts, clothes, electronics, books, toys and other retail goods is tested in the fourth quarter of the year when holiday sales could mean as much as 90 percent of an affiliate’s income for that year. Mostly, affiliates like Eickenberg are catching on to the techniques they need to rank higher in searches and keep the visitor interested – whether through content, coupons or presentation. What they want is to start as early as they can – for some, July is when they gear up – and to have the merchant weigh in, too.
There is do doubt holiday sales are big business – especially online. In 2005, holiday shoppers in the U.S. spent $30.1 billion online (that’s excluding travel) during the period of roughly mid-November to Dec. 25, according to a study by Goldman Sachs & Co., Nielsen//NetRatings and Harris Interactive. That spending is actually up 30 percent over the previous year. A separate report by comScore Networks put the Nov. 1 through Dec. 25 spending number at $19.6 billion (excluding travel, auctions and large business gifts) – a lower amount but still 25 percent more than its previous year’s total.
The Goldman Sachs & Co., Harris Interactive , Nielsen//NetRatings, study stated shoppers spent the most money on clothes, at $5.3 billion, followed by computer hardware and other peripherals at $4.8 billion. The ubiquitous iPod and consumer electronics in general made for a very fastgrowing category at 109 percent year-overyear, according to the study. This, they say, was due to demand for the iPod but also the lower prices in 2005 on laptops, printers and plasma televisions. The study also said shoppers bought $3 billion in books and $2.3 billion in toys and video games. And purchases didn’t necessarily stop the day after Christmas. Nielsen//NetRatings says while the number of unique visitors to websites in the week leading up to Dec. 25 totaled 60.2 million, the week after Dec. 25 to Jan. 1, 2006 totaled 61.2 million, as recipients proceeded to promptly spend their holiday gift cards.
AFFILIATES EMBRACE THE SEASON
Joel Bevil also knows the holiday season is an important period, but unlike Eickenberg, isn’t quite sure how to approach it. His BeachCombersCove.biz, DreamJewelry.biz, RoadTripVacations.net, and VarsitySportsStore.com will be experiencing their first Christmas this year. He says he plans to look into how to best market his sites in the next few months but that right now he’s actually just finished some back-to-school sales that did rather well for him. He says he primarily goes to ABestWeb.com forums on the Internet two or three times per week to seek out advice and to gather helpful hints.
Marilyn Olsen with American- Luxury.com has recently started a blog to help her sales. She also runs World- Luxury.com and French-Luxury.com, where she sells higher-end apparel, furniture, baby clothes and accessories, interior decorating ideas, gardening essentials and dog and cat gifts. “The fourth quarter is more a difference of magnitude rather than a change in what I offer to my clients,” she says. “Very special, handmade items, both decorating and gifts, sell as soon as they become available, which is usually in October.” For her the holiday season means working long hours to update the Web pages, which she does individually. “Since I carry everything at an individual item level, both image and text, this represents extra hours to add SKUs, and because of the faster sellthrough, I spend much more time checking for broken links or out-of-stock conditions,” she says.
Olsen says the blog adds a personal touch, which her buyers appreciate. She says the blog acts as a kind of newsletter to alert clients to “developing trends and to provide information about specialized luxury products to help them make informed buying decisions that meet their lifestyle needs.” She’d rather do it that way than to send email, which she says is too obtrusive. She does allow clients to set up an RSS feed to get only the information they want.
Marilynn Ferguson of GoodBulbs.com knows seasonal cycles. (Can you think of anything more seasonal than flower bulbs?) “I’m going to be promoting GoodBulbs with some brick-and-mortar advertising,” she says, “and some online ads, working to get the branding up … things like that. During the bulb-selling season, I’m going to fire up several ad campaigns. I’m quite excited about advertising on the merchant side, because I can go for branding and such and can afford to take a longer view when it comes to the ROI. Plus, a merchant site is a natural destination site.” She says that although she’s all for gearing up about two months before a high-selling season, “on the affiliate side, September is early enough for me,” she says. “Any earlier, and the ‘newly updated’ SE rank bonus dies before the season starts.” She adds that even with marketing pushes that some retailers start offering before Halloween, she doesn’t believe the selling season in actual sales numbers has changed in “20 years.”
What she calls the “actual” buying season for Christmas products should be anticipated by “SEOing” those items a couple of months in advance so that they get ranked at the right time. This is a different approach than any “regular” items you may have on your site, she adds. “Just tweaking the pages to show up in the SEs will do,” Ferguson says. “And if it’s a summertime item, they can pretty much forget it for Christmas; the ‘holiday’ for most summer items is Memorial Day – if there’s any holiday for them at all. There are some July 4 items, but other than that, summer stuff seems to not be connected to a particular day.”
As much as Ferguson is aware of the product life of her goods throughout the year, people like Bevil and Eickenberg want – and may need – more guidance from an affiliate manager. Fortunately, there are some who know they need to help make the sale, too. John Walter, affiliate coordinator at outdoor apparel and gear sites DogFunk.com, BackCountry.com, Tramdock.com and Explore64.com, knows that teaching affiliates a little SEO isn’t going to cut it. He says his sites do 50 percent of their sales in the fourth quarter and that he actively goes to the forum sites and advises affiliates to start their holiday work early – like August.
“We have a clear-the-warehouse sale then to get ready for the holiday season.” He says the 120-day cookie on his sites helps, as does the bi-weekly banners through Commission Junction so that affiliates don’t have to change that link. This year, they are gathering all the programs under one “mega-program” in CJ – so that will “diminish tracking errors across sites,” he says. “That’s less painful for affiliates.”
MAKE IT SIMPLE
Gary Marcoccia, co-founder of network AvantLink.com, says they go the extra yard for affiliates who need massive site updating for the holidays. They offer an automated data feed management tool that comes in handy when pages and pages of your site may need the necessary customizing to get them ready. Marcoccia says he noticed a fundamental difference in the kinds of online traffic some time ago.
“We recognized there were people either surfing or shopping,” he says. “We found out that we get a 10 times greater conversion rate from those shopping online. Those people are in buying mode. That said, we help affiliates make the sale by offering spiderable content. This way you don’t have to pay too much attention to it. It can take two to four hours per week customizing content manually.” This automation can be completed a few weeks before the beginning of the season so that spiders are sure to find it.
“We are focused on a shorter tail,” Marcoccia says, “not the thousands of affiliates who are just throwing up banners.” He says that while their affiliate selection process is very rigid, their platform can allow an affiliate to promote a feed so specifically that it is essentially syndicating affiliate creative. Even so, Marcoccia actively goes to forum boards and campaigns for early preparedness. He says affiliates have to go to their merchant sites in September to make sure the merchant inventory is still in stock and the price hasn’t changed. He says the best success is to devote one page to one item. But if summertime comes and the link stays up, then you have to go back to the static page, he says. And no one wants to manually check hundreds or even thousands of items.
For many, instinct and manual techniques are all they have at their disposal, especially if you’ve maxed out your SEO budget. To this end, the National Retail Federation’s Shop.org recently released a best practices and holiday trends study for holiday retailing 2006. The study’s highest-ranked advice is to start early. About a third of consumers plan to start their online shopping earlier than they did in 2005, so that means marketing campaigns will have to start earlier, too.
Secondly, the study found that the other two-thirds of online shoppers are waiting to shop later and later – 20 percent wait until 13 days before Christmas to start the bulk of their online shopping (compared to the 9 percent who leap in on the day after Thanksgiving). To facilitate the late shoppers, more than half of all online retailers were still offering free shipping during the last six days before Christmas. The study also commented that savvy online shoppers were expecting big online sales and promotions as early as Nov. 26.
With the ease of shopping online now a nonissue, customer satisfaction just keeps rising. Shop.org’s study cites an 11 percent jump in “very satisfied” online shoppers from the previous year. While 29 percent of online merchants began markdowns even before Thanksgiving, an equal 29 percent offered no markdowns all season and both groups came out ahead – 87 percent of merchants saw the same or improved profit margins.
SHOP + SEARCH = SALES
The Shop.org study also reiterated a basic truism: Search is still king. Even though some retailers were wary of spending so much money on paid search, the majority are still allocating budget moneys to it and even increasing their efforts in paid search this season. Affiliates also put search high on their list of effective seasonal strategies. Some will use search this year for the first time.
Ferguson at GoodBulbs.com would love to see the timing even up over at some merchants. They may want to help for the holidays, but she says sometimes the promotions are ill-timed. “It would be nice to start seeing the offers and new links and banners in September and October,” she says, “when there’s still time to do something with them, but not so darned soon that putting them up would give a reasonable person the idea that the ad was left over from last year.” She adds that some merchants email her the week before Christmas shipping ends (or even closer to the deadline) with some deal, “as if I’m going to be able to do a thing with it then.”
Her standard operations are to “fire up the PPC campaigns and tweak the SEO for my affiliate sites. Affiliate-wise, I aim for products that aren’t limited to Christmas interest, so rather than a ‘now or never’ type of cycle, the holidays just cause increased interest all around. A lot more buyers come out at the holidays, so sales rise accordingly. So, for me, it’s just a matter of making sure my pages are getting seen at that time.”
This year, Eickenberg says she will put “more emphasis on the gift cards that are available. I have only started to experiment with some pay per click and am still very much learning about it. I may devote some effort into that this coming holiday season. Probably everybody else will be, too, so not sure how effective that will be.”
Marcoccia at AvantLink loves to say that removing all the manual labor for the affiliate helps them execute “best practices.” It isn’t all just feeds; he says he lets affiliates know what feeds will be holiday-related and communicates that to them. In his network, though, the learning curve is a bit steeper. “With us,” he says, “if you’re not a little bit savvy, you are going to be challenged.”
Olsen of American-Luxury.com lauds the whole retail industry for embracing the online world. They may still be learning how to do things but clearly are in for the long haul. “I applaud online merchants who realize that truly unique items for which inventory could not be supported in brick-and-mortar [stores] can be offered successfully online to an audience that may be a small niche but is willing to pay full retail early,” she says. “This not only can give them important information on trends, but is also profitable.”