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HolidayEcommerce_Body.jpgby Jennifer Shaheen.

If you’re in e-commerce, you know the crucial holiday selling season is right around the corner. And with consumers looking for the best deals—and Amazon expanding the range of products and services it offers—it’s getting increasingly difficult for independent retailers to compete.

With these concerns in mind, we turned to leading e-commerce experts to ask them what small business owners need to do right now to enjoy a more profitable holiday season.

1. Seed the ground now for holiday sales

In an environment of economic uncertainty, customers want to make the most out of their purchasing dollar. Ron Rule, an e-commerce engagement expert, urges retailers to start offering gift cards on their websites now. “There is a psychological difference between gift cards and coupons and they're perceived differently by buyers,” he says. “A coupon means you're saving money, but a gift card is money.” These gift cards can be used to make additional holiday purchases, boosting your customer’s buying power. “In the end, you're still just discounting your order but that difference in perception to the buyer will make result in a better response than a coupon of the same value,” Rule adds.

2. Time is of the essence

For every person who’s starting their holiday shopping right now, there are plenty who wait until the very last minute. That’s why it’s important to be clear about your delivery times, according to Andrew Youderian. The author of Profitable e-Commerce operates several e-commerce businesses. “Shipping times are always important to communicate clearly, but there's no other time of the year when it's as important to get it right as during the holiday season,” he says. “At the forefront of most shoppers’ minds is: ‘Will this be here in time?’”

Amazon Prime’s two-day delivery has made it an incredibly popular option among holiday shoppers. When you’re competing with Amazon, you need to provide the same level of service. Details matter, Youderian says, adding, “Make sure you're very explicit about when items will ship and, more importantly, when you guarantee they will arrive. Don't simply say things like ‘Three-Day Shipping’. Instead, give an exact arrival time so customers don't have to guess or calculate themselves.”

HolidayEcommerce_PQ.jpg3. Highlight your recommended products

“Gift buyers want to get the perfect gift with the least amount of research,” says Youderian. “So while they know Dad would love a new power drill, they really aren't interested in researching tools for two hours to find it. Make life easier on them, and prominently recommend your top-selling products, and the best choices for different types of applications and users.” Top-of-the-page placement is often best, as it helps you capture the attention of shoppers too busy to scroll down. “Keeping these recommendations short, specific, and to the point will dramatically increase the chance of the shopper buying that gift from you,” he says.”

4. Reach out to existing customers

Remember to re-engage past customers, says Rule. “It's a million times easier to sell to someone who's already purchased from you than it is to attract a new customer,” he says. “The best way is to segment your customer list based on what they've previously purchased and email them a promotion on something else they're likely to buy. Even sending the same message to everyone is better than doing nothing.”

5. Build demand through strategic blogger outreach

Terry Lin, creator of the podcast, Build My Online Store, recommends reaching out to bloggers as a long-term strategy to boost holiday sales. “Bloggers enjoy sharing new stuff they like with their audience, so reaching out and sending them a sample to provide a product review, or working together to host a giveaway contest is a great way to get started,” he says. “In addition, you'll also get on the radar of other bloggers in the market as the recognition snowballs over time.” The fall season is the ideal time to leverage established blogger relationships by asking for their input and participation in holiday marketing campaigns.

6. Don’t forget to say thank you

“Using a smartphone, record a 60-second  thank you video and send it out to all your customers over the past year giving them a quick update on the business, and include a coupon code at the end of the video thanking them for their support,” Lin say. “People buy from brands they know, like, and trust, and nothing conveys this better than seeing the owner of the business in a video. Once it's recorded, promote it across your social media channels, email list, friends, family, and colleagues.”

FreeWiFi_Body.jpgby Iris Dorbian.


One year ago, when Susana Fonticoba launched Right Click Advantage, an e-mail marketing and communication services company in East Hanover, N.J., she ordered cable Internet that included a WiFi hotspot as part of the provider’s regular subscription package. And because Fonticoba offers seminars at her place of business, she opted to offer visitors free WiFi as opposed to creating password-protected accounts.

“I felt it would be an advantage to the seminar attendees and my clients to use the free WiFi while they’re here,” she says. Since installing this feature, Fonticoba has seen healthy client traffic at her studio. Rather than view the free WiFi as a distraction from her company’s mission in serving other small business owners/entrepreneurs, Fonticoba embraces it as a perk that has yielded considerable benefits to her bottom line, particularly in the wake of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy. 

“When Sandy hit last year and our area had electricity while many other communities did not, I put out the word that I welcomed fellow business owners to come to my studio and get some work done, offering my free WiFi,” she recalls. “Why shouldn’t we want to make life convenient and comfortable for our customers? They are why we are in business.”

To her surprise, no one took Fonticoba up on her offer. However, she did receive many thanks from people for it when she saw them.

“I believe it benefited my business by silently growing the bond of trust in the relationship,” she says. “The unsaid message was, ‘You can count on me to help.’ That is a message I wanted to communicate about my business in a quiet, graceful way.”

Fonticoba is an example of a growing contingent of small business owners who view having free WiFi at their venue as both a perk and necessity. Although she does acknowledge the drawbacks—customers abusing the WiFi without patronizing the business—Fonticoba is an ardent proponent of its advantages, feeling they outnumber the negatives.

Kristin Fintel, owner of the six-year-old Chehalem Ridge Bed & Breakfast, an inn located in Newberg, Oregon, also views having free WiFi at her place of business, as an imperative. Fintel says she has offered free WiFi at her business from its inception. The decision to include this feature as a customer amenity was informed largely by the experience she and her husband, who’s in charge of IT operations at the B & B, have had while on the road.

FreeWiFi_PQ.jpg“When we travel, WiFi is important to us,” Fintel explains. “If it’s checking e-mail for work or checking on area attractions, [free WiFi] makes things easier. With both of our jobs, if we stay connected enough to solve small problems while traveling, there are fewer issues to deal with when we get back. Since we designed our B&B, it had to come with WiFi. It never crossed our mind to charge for something that we feel is a basic service.”

Not that offering free WiFi has come without snags.

Louis Rosas-Guyon, president of R-Squared Computing, a North Miami-based technology consulting firm that works with clients that offer free WiFi, says there are negatives that small business owners need to be aware of before they go this route. “Once you offer it, people will complain when it’s unavailable,” he says. “The airlines are experiencing this phenomenon when in-flight WiFi is down.”

He also adds that sometimes it might be hard for retail shops and food-service companies to justify the expense, particularly if the feature brings in “squatters who sit and use your connection without buying.”

Still, the pros might greatly outweigh the cons. Unlike some business owners that may be wary of offering this feature for fear it could deflect attention from their business, Fonticoba and Fintel express little reservation.

“I believe in creating the atmosphere for my clients that I would appreciate for myself,” Fonticoba says. “And hey, that hotspot didn’t cost me anything, so why not? This way, [my clients] leave my secure connection alone and I don’t have to worry about passwords. For returning clients, I do have a guest account on my own Internet connection with a password.”

For small business owners contemplating adding free WiFi as a customer perk, consider these tips.

Do your research

As with anything costly, be it a car, a house or computer equipment, never buy anything unless you do your research (which may include cost comparisons) first. Similarly, you should never sign up with any Internet provider unless you do your due diligence and find out the features they’re offering in their subscription package.

Fintel says it’s also important that any connection provide enough Internet broadband and router security for customers to perform a slew of activities such as watching videos or checking e-mails.

Establish a good understanding of your IT infrastructure

This will be invaluable when your WiFi service is experiencing a blackout or massive glitch. Fintel admits that having her husband act as the IT troubleshooter has been a key asset to her. “If I had to pay for that, I might look to establish a contractual relationship with someone who understands my guest needs,” she says.

Keep your business connection secure from intrusions

Offering free WiFi can be an excellent way of fostering a climate of good will at your business. But it cannot be at the expense of putting your business at risk by affording customers unwanted access to confidential information. Protect your business by having a separate WiFi network that is password-protected and up-to-date with other IT safeguards.

Fonticoba agrees. “What small business owners should not do is open up their own Internet connection and let the world hop on,” she advises. “Keep that password secure for yourself and your staff.”

Know your customers

Since launching her business, Fonticoba has made this a best practice. “If you want your customers to feel welcome and to encourage them to come back on a regular basis, make it as comfortable and convenient as possible for them,” she advises. “Anticipate what the average customer might want. I work with entrepreneurs and they have harrowing days like I do. So I keep simple refreshments on hand as well as phones and Internet for their use.”

Offering free WiFi at your business can be an excellent way of securing customer buy-in. But it must never be done at the expense of your business’s long-term security and success.

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