by Tom Shackleton

For retailers both large and small, you need to prepare for Christmas well in advance if you want to be ahead of the curve come the holiday season. This is no different for independent eCommerce retailers. In fact, if you want to compete with the large online retailers that have come to dominate Christmas eCommerce, you’ll need to be very well prepared indeed.

For retailers both large and small, you need to prepare for Christmas well in advance if you want to be ahead of the curve come the holiday season. This is no different for independent eCommerce retailers. In fact, if you want to compete with the large online retailers that have come to dominate Christmas eCommerce, you’ll need to be very well prepared indeed.

Competing against the ‘John Lewis’ big brands

Many smaller, independent eCommerce retailers may think they have no chance of competing for traffic with the likes of Amazon and John Lewis, but independents have one key advantage - individuality. What’s more, customers are willing to pay for it, with 73% of us admitting that we crave gift buying inspiration from independents at Christmas.

Why aren’t independents competing?

The main barrier to smaller eCommerce retailers attracting larger amounts of Christmas traffic appears to be digital experience, with larger retailers having the funding and resources to create stress free systems that keep customers coming back for more. Meanwhile, 28% customers are choosing larger retailers because of poor experiences from smaller ones.

We’ve produced a handy downloadable checklist that you can follow to create a user experience for your independent eCommerce store that levels the playing field and gives customers a reason to choose your unique, quality products over larger, mass produced options.

1. Data

You can be sure that larger eCommerce retailers are analysing as much data as is available to give the clearest picture possible for planning their Christmas activities. Although you probably won’t have as much data at your disposal, you should still be analysing what you do have.

Analyse Your Sales Data

First things first, you’ll need to know which products to buy for the holiday season and for this you’ll have to analyse your sales data.

You’ll have to start getting orders in now, so look through your sales data from previous winters to see what typically sells well at Christmas and which of last year’s hits you’ll want to stock up on again.

By referencing previous years, you can see how quickly items are likely to run out of stock and put in place processes for re-ordering them, which we’ll discuss later.

  • Look through your sales data from previous Christmas seasons
  • Stock up on popular items

Track Your Web Traffic Data

Track website data

As well as your product sales, you’ll also want to look at how your website traffic changes during the holiday period.

There are likely to be jumps in traffic volume in response to your promotions and around the season in general, so look at where the spikes occur and how significant they are. The last thing you want at the busiest time of the year is for your website hosting to be unable to cope, causing your site to slow down or grind to a halt all together.

Make sure that your hosting package is sufficient to cope with the extra traffic well ahead of time, or a bad experience with a unresponsive site could turn new or existing customers away for good.

  • Review busy periods of your historic website traffic
  • Make sure your hosting package is robust enough

2. Communication

You can plan your stock levels, store design or anything else as much as you want, but if you don’t communicate effectively what your store can offer, potential customers won’t even know you exist.

Build Your Social Media Following

Build social following

One of the most obvious and powerful ways of communicating your Christmas campaigns to customers is through social media, so start building up your following.

You should start putting strategies in place to grow your social reach and followings well ahead of Christmas so that when the time comes, you have a captive audience, ready to buy their gifts from you.

  • Begin to build a social media following
  • Promote offers, discounts and bundles on social media

Grow Your Email Marketing List

Email marketing is a great way to communicate with your existing customers, largely without having to compete for space with larger retailers and their much bigger marketing budgets.

Again, you should start building up your email list long before Christmas. Start email activity a few months ahead by offering a discount to customers who sign up for your marketing emails. You want to have a strong list of customers really engaged in your products and the values of your brand. These are the customers most likely to forgo big brands in favour of your independent eCommerce store when Christmas shopping.

  • Build y****our e****mail l****ist b****efore Christmas
  • Offer discounts for early sign-ups

Start Engaging with Press

Using the press to get your products or store featured in magazines or websites can do wonders for your traffic at Christmas. You should be talking to news organisations and any magazines or journals related to your industry for coverage as soon as possible.

It’s your brand and ethos that will largely separate you from other retailers, so Christmas is a great chance to showcase the human side of your brand, really showcasing the smaller, individual nature of your store. Start thinking about setting up a charity event or something similar that would get press organisations involved. Having some positive PR that shows your individuality could make you stand out at a time of kindness and good nature to all.

  • Engage with p****ress
  • Set up a Christmas c****harity e****vent

Offer Content to Bloggers

Getting featured by bloggers is a great way to create interest around your store at Christmas time.

You’ll want to start contacting bloggers now for features and affiliate marketing opportunities. There will be a lot of brands who will be wanting to do the same but starting discussions early will at least keep you in their minds when they come to putting together their Christmas content planning.

Everyone loves a free gift, especially at Christmas, so go the extra mile and send them something wrapped and carefully packaged to pique their interest.

  • Contact b****loggers for features
  • Look for a****ffiliate marketing opportunities
  • Give bloggers gifts

Create a Brand Partnership for Competitions

Another way to start getting in the gift-giving spirit is through competitions, so offer one of your products as a prize to attract customers.

Christmas calls for something above and beyond the usual though so start thinking about what you’re going to offer now. We recommend starting a brand partnership with a complementary brand and perhaps consider running a competition together. This should increase the reach of your competition and make it more attractive to potential customers of both brands.

  • Set up a c****ompetition
  • Go above and beyond the usual
  • Partner with a complementary brand

Plan Some Festive Content

Plan festive content

If you have a blog, don’t forget to create some Christmas-focused, original content of your own to engage potential customers. Many of your potential customers will begin looking for gift guides online as we get closer to the holidays.

You could try something like “Our Top Products for Christmas This Year” for example, or ‘Gift Ideas for Kids’ . Create some buzz around your products and give people that much needed inspiration for Christmas gift ideas.

  • Create original content
  • Build a gift guide

Create a Google AdWords Strategy

Adwords strategy

Christmas related search terms are likely to be highly competitive in the festive season, so think about niches you can fill with your products and target specific markets and search terms.

Now is a good time to think about what products to promote with AdWords, as you’re likely going to need to order these products in greater numbers.

  • Target n****iches with your promotions
  • Start planning your advertising campaigns

Review Your Customer Service Processes

Your customer service procedures need to be as quick and efficient as possible at the busiest time of the year.

You should be looking at how effectively you currently respond to customer queries, problems and requests. You could test out new ways of communicating with customers, such as social media, for example.

  • Optimise your customer service processes
  • Make sure you can respond to customers quickly

3. Online Store Layout

Once visitors reach your store, you will want to make sure that they can find and buy what they’re looking for as quickly and painlessly as possible. The way you lay out your store for Christmas should enable them to do this.

Add a Christmas Shop Section

Christmas shop

Your customers will be looking for Christmas products and gift ideas, so make them easy to find with a dedicated Christmas section on your eCommerce store - which is displayed prominently on your homepage. Give your visitors as much help as possible in finding those few gifts they’re really struggling with.

Customers will also be looking for inspiration, so present them with suggestions and related products while they browse your store.

  • Make Christmas products easy to find
  • Add a Christmas section to your home page
  • P****resent customers with suggestions and inspiration

Optimise Your Navigability

Besides placing all of your Christmas products prominently, you need to make the experience of navigating your website as smooth as possible.

It’s easy to let your store get cluttered or disorganised over time, so have a thorough look at your site’s structure, the products you have available and your product categories to make sure there aren’t discontinued or out of stock products in your store. Ensure that each product is in a logical category and do anything else necessary to make items as easy to find as possible.

  • Make your store easy to navigate
  • Declutter your product catalogue

Add Christmas Design Elements

You want visitors to know you’re the place for Christmas shopping as soon as they arrive, so tweak the design of your eCommerce site to make that clear. You could adjust your logo by adding a Santa's hat or alter your colour scheme by adding some red and white. Just make sure customers can see that you’re celebrating.

  • Tweak your store design
  • Give your logo a C****hristmas touch

4. Distribution & Logistics

One of the biggest issues for independent eCommerce retailers can be delivery. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for smaller online stores to compete with the unrealistic delivery expectations set by companies such as Amazon.

Offer Free Delivery

Free delivery

You should try and offer free delivery wherever possible, even it it’s only for the Christmas period. Most online shoppers expect free standard delivery at least.

However, this is understandably difficult for some independent eCommerce stores. If there’s no way you can possibly offer free delivery, be as up front as possible about your delivery costs. There’s nothing worse than reaching the checkout page, only to find an extra £5 added to your order that you weren’t expecting.

  • Be up front about your delivery charges

Click and Collect

Click & collect

Another useful service to offer customers is Click & Collect. Large stores like John Lewis receive huge numbers of click and collect orders in the run up to Christmas. In fact, last year 56% of their online customers opted for click and collect over home delivery! If you have a bricks and mortar store, offering click and collect is a great way to drive customers into your store. If not, services like CornerDrop allow anyone to have deliveries sent to one of their collection locations, making delivery much more convenient.

  • Offer click and collect

Offer Free Returns

Free returns are another great way of smoothing out the customer experience around Christmas. It can give customers the confidence to make a purchase they’re not 100% sure about, in the knowledge that they can return the items without any hassle.

Some distribution companies such as DPD can offer free returns to your customers, but if this is out of your financial reach, try to make your returns process as simple as possible. Make returns information visible on your site so that visitors can find it easily and suggest the easiest method for customers to return goods to you.

  • Choose a distribution company
  • Make your returns process simple

Take Note of The Last Delivery Dates

Be sure to research the last delivery dates before Christmas and let your customers know when they have to order by. Post the last delivery dates on your home page to remind visitors how long they have left to order. This should mean customers are more confident about ordering as Christmas gets close and you want to make the most of every sales day available to you.

  • Tell your customers the last delivery dates

Put Re-Stocking Agreements in Place

It’s likely that you’ll have to re-stock at some point during the Christmas period, so plan re-ordering processes in advance.

It’s always fantastic to have that one product that’s a surprise hit, so make sure agreements are in place with all of your suppliers for quick re-stocking should the need arise. If you can put processes in place far in advance for re-stocking your products, you should be able to avoid any sudden panics when your most popular item sells out 2 weeks before Christmas.

  • Have agreements in place in advance

5. Personalisation

Something that is becoming increasingly significant in eCommerce is personalisation. Large eCommerce retailers are personalising the shopping experience of each customer to present them with the products and offers most suitable for them. The good news is, this is something that’s becoming more and more accessible to smaller, independent eCommerce stores.

Use Shopify Apps

Users of Shopify have access to many fantastic apps for customising the functionality of their store, and there are some great personalisation apps there too.

One of them is Bunting, which allows you to personalise the user experience with product recommendations, behavioural targeting and other useful features. At Christmas, it should be especially useful for providing visitors with insightful gift ideas that they are much more likely to be interested in.

  • Customise your store functionality
  • Target specific customers

Segment Your Customers for Targeted Emails

Another useful technique to start planning with now is targeted email campaigns.

You could segment your email list into different customer groups and target them in the way most appropriate to each segment. For example, you might want to send certain products to younger segments of your email list but not to older ones.

  • Promote certain products to different segments

Put Together a Social Advertising Plan

Social advertising tools, such as Facebook Ads, offer an incredible level of detail in the personalisation they offer.

You can show offers to users based on age, location, interests and much more. This means your Christmas marketing campaigns on social media can be much more targeted than with Google Adwords and you can carve out a niche that doesn’t put you in direct competition with larger retailers.

  • T****arget customers with Facebook targeting

6. Other Things To Consider

Create a January Sale Plan for Leftover Stock

January sale

While there are bound to be holiday hits, some products will inevitably under perform, so have a plan for freeing your store of excess stock post Christmas.

  • Put together post Christmas offers
  • Plan your advertising for boxing day

Plan Your Christmas Offers & Discounts

To encourage further Christmas sales, put together some enticing offers and discounts to reward your customers and social media followers.

  • Plan discounts in advance
  • Reward your loyal customers

Be Aware of Black Friday & Cyber Monday

Whether you decide to take part or not, Black Friday and Cyber Monday are huge shopping days in the lead up to Christmas, so be prepared.

  • Make sure you are well stocked
  • Prepare for spikes in traffic
  • Offer some Black Friday discounts

In Summary…

Christmas is an incredibly busy retail period that can often be dominated by large retailers online. But whether you are solely an eCommerce retailer, or also have a brick and mortar store, getting a slice of that lucrative holiday market can be easier than you think. So long as you plan well.

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