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Improving the Online Retail Customer Journey to Drive a Spike in Christmas Sales

Christmas is just a couple of days away, bringing with it great opportunities for retailers to optimise their customer journey.

First, a few stats to show (if you didn’t already know) just how crucial this time of year is: approximately 70% of all gift shop retail sales happen at Christmas. According to MasterCard Advisors, last year retail spending hit a record-breaking $853 billion, with ecommerce sales growing 18% yoy.

Even after Amazon have grabbed their 45% of the market, that still means there are big opportunities for smart ecommerce businesses that have taken the time to make sure they are prepared.

When is the Christmas buying period for online retail?

Most ecommerce sites start to see a big spike around Thanksgiving with Black Friday/ Cyber Monday and it lasts through until the post-Christmas sales.

During that time, you can see your traffic double or triple – and in some cases go even higher than that.

But, because Thanksgiving is always the last weekend of November, the actual number of days shopping can vary year by year. For example, instead of the 38 shopping days we had in 2018 between Black Friday and New Year’s, there were only 32 days in 2019. That’s almost a week less of shopping time.

People Go “Christmas Crazy”

It’s the time to really take advantage of all that extra traffic that’s coming to your site, really highly qualified numbers of people who are looking to purchase.

Because Christmas is a time when we shop on steroids as far as our brain functions are concerned.

We’ve probably all been there ourselves. People have left it late and are consequently much more motivated to buy. They have a reason to buy, they have a timeframe in which they have to buy. They are motivated. And we know from the work of Dr. B.J. Fogg of the Stanford Persuasion lab that motivated people will crawl over broken glass, as it were, to make that purchase.

People go “Christmas crazy”.

All of this makes it sound really easy for ecommerce stores this time of year. All you need to do is be open for business and have lots of stock for the thousands of orders you’ll be getting, right?

Unfortunately not. People are highly motivated, but also a bit stressed and they are rushing – and that makes them far less tolerant of any errors or mistakes on the part of an e-trader.

So how do you improve the online retail customer journey to get a spike in Christmas sales?

Fear not. In true festive spirit, we are on hand to help you out.

We’ve dug deep into our long list of Christmas tests and come up with a few of our favourite concepts and hypotheses from the last few years.

Now, as you can imagine, how you could best interpret these hypotheses (or whether they are relevant to you at all) is going to be different for each business. It 100% depends on your own unique context, your market, the vertical you’re in, your campaigns. That’s why we insist on testing everything.

There is no such thing as best practice, but there is a proven process for effective conversion rate optimisation of continual research, analysis and testing.

Anyway, with that caveat ringing in your ears, here are some tactics that we have used in the past with clients. They aren’t here to be blindly copied, but they will hopefully provide a bit of inspiration and spark some ideas that you could test.

1: Prepare Yourself

Okay, so I promised no “best practice” general fluff…  So, instead, think of this first one as a pep talk from a trusted friend 😉

Firstly, you need to be in it to win from it. It’s a constant surprise to see how many ecommerce businesses are not riding this wave. They let Black Friday, Cyber Monday and an entire season pass them by. These businesses have to understand that while it is a fairly new phenomenon in the UK, it has grown hugely – resulting in there being people out there on the search engines and across the web looking for inspiration. People looking for gifts with their wallets out and money ready to spend.

Then, once you have decided to go for it, make sure that in the run-up to Christmas, your site is optimised for usability, functionality, trustworthiness, site speed, mobile friendliness and all the “basics”. So, when it does come to Christmas time, your site is ready to welcome that influx of shoppers.

Now, onto the real CRO bit…

2: Clarity of Journey

One of the most important things we always emphasise to clients (at any time of year) is to keep things simple. After all, the AWA mantra is “Buying should be easy”.

We’ve had win after win by testing how we can make customer journeys more simple. In fact, I would be so bold as to say that every client we have worked with had had at least one winning test from making the buying journey simpler.

At Christmas time, this is even more important than ever. Remember how people get  Christmas Crazy and are rushing to buy things?

The best way of helping them achieve that is to keep things ultra clear and ultra simple.

This means avoiding any chances of confusion or ambiguity in the special offers, promotional or product copy and images. Consumers should be encouraged to enter a state called cognitive flow by psychologists. In this, they proceed effortlessly from being attracted to a product or service to actually clicking the Buy button.

You could also start looking at the customer journeys from your top page traffic point of view. So really analyse where the majority of your traffic is coming through during this time of year (it may differ from the rest of the year) and make sure that all those pages are fit and ready for a customer experience.

If in doubt, try using the “12 year old test”. Essentially, this test is about making sure all of your promotion mechanics and copy can be understood by a typical 12 year old. You can do this either by getting a real 12 year old (or near enough) or there are a number of online tools that can grade your copy for you.

If you have any weak spots, fix them – and then run A/B tests to find the winning formula for your audience.

3: Start with the end – your basket

Many ecommerce retailers understand that the most important part of a site to check is the basket. If customers have gone through the rest of the journey and then cannot transact, it’s going to be hugely frustrating. So from a conversion rate point of view, you really need to be making sure that your basket is in really good shape for Christmas.

How can you optimise it further?

That totally depends on what you’re selling and who your customers are. However, here are some of the things that we have run tests on for our clients:

  • Prominent guest checkout (don’t make people register)
  • Address finder (so users can save a little time)
  • Adding Paypal and Amazon Pay (for user trust and ease)

4: Are your product pages up to scratch?

Just about every purchase made on your site will go through a product page (PDP) at some point in the journey. Therefore, it makes sense to check that it has all the information a new user will require to make a buying decision shown on it.

Again, exactly what this information is will depend on what you’re selling. But think about the ease with which both the information about the product and the ways in which it can be delivered can be found and understood. Also, can it be accessed quickly and easily, given how busy and time constrained most people are getting, especially at this time of the year?

Another point is to always have enough information and imagery as the consumer needs in order to reach a buying decision. If they need to see different angles, perspectives, dimensions of what you sell, then make sure you show it.

For example, when working with Xero Shoes we discovered through our in-depth research that shoe buyers often like to see the sole as well as the inside and outside of the shoe. They also like to see in-situ shots. So we added a load more images to the product pages with great success.

Xero Shoes Screengrab

This PDP from Xero Shoes now has 11 photos, boosting conversions

5: The Gift Finder

This one is really only for certain types of online retailer, where there are many products. However, we have found that it works particularly well for the early, organised buyers who want some inspiration and also the last-minute panic buyers who are pushed for time.

They are not so effective around Black Friday, where people are searching for one-off bargains on known items, such as games consoles or other big purchases. But gift finders, done well, can take the pain out of sifting through pages of ideas.

It’s also a great way of pushing certain items – maybe because you have excess stock of them or they offer a high profit margin. Building the right merchandising strategy can pay solid dividends with a big spike in Christmas sales.

6: Make sure that undecided users are not left unattended. 

People sometimes leave baskets. That’s just a fact of ecommerce. But it normally doesn’t mean that the user does not intend to buy, usually that they have to check something first, or they got distracted.

So don’t ignore those people. Give them an extra nudge of motivation to come back and finish checking out and many will do just that.

Depending on the reason of indecision, there are several weapons up your sleeve to entice them to return. You’ll need to juggle with a combination of promotions, extra product choice, urgency and trust reinforcement.

Here are some examples:,

If the reason for abandonment was the product, a wider choice can put the buyer back on track.

If the reason was price, then a targeted promotion should help.

johann-van-tonder-cooAs Johann Van Tonder, AWA COO says: “Thanks to the technology available today, it’s fairly easy to convey targeted promotions via banners or the website or follow up with basket abandonment emails.

“One example for this is a multi-step email process that has proved to be very effective at chasing abandonment. We saw up to 5-7% conversion rate on basket abandonment emails with only moderate promotions.”

Advancements in tracking technology allow you to store last visited items or items which were added to the basket but never ordered. These can be used to send a personalised email with a Black Friday promotion, or a personalised pop-up next time they visit. We used this to great effect with Canon recently, causing a sharp spike in conversions.

7: New Customers & Maximising LTV

This final point is less a potential tactic and more of a way of thinking that we strongly suggest you adopt in your preparations for Christmas.

It comes from our experience of working with many, many businesses where the bulk of their annual revenue is produced in the 2-month Christmas period. Research suggests that anywhere between 25% and 60% of new customers acquired in ecommerce business are acquired in this period.

Quickfire revenue aside, that’s a lot of new people coming through the door. So as well as the initial sale, businesses that want to scale beyond this seasonal spree should look at this influx of people and work out what else they can do with them.

Sure, many of these new customers are going to be people who have no reason to buy from you at any other time of the year. They are there because they’re buying a gift which you happen to sell, and that’s it.

But, it doesn’t have to be the end. All of those people are going to need to buy birthday presents throughout the year for friends or family – why not from you again if they had a great experience the first time around? But even if there’s nothing else all year, you can still make sure they are the first place they look next Christmas. It’s much cheaper to re-energise old customers than recruit new ones.

So what mechanisms and strategies can you put in place to keep your site in their mind? Do you have a plan to turn them into loyal customers, to make them come back to you? Make sure you have a plan in place – retargeting, email campaigns, loyalty programs, referral rewards… that sort of thing. You can also pop out discount flyers with your best products to new or lapsed customers to stay top of mind.

But should you experiment over such a key trading period?

As we’ve outlined above, buyer behaviour changes during this period, fueled by the pressure of gifting and from those too-good-to-be-true deals.

There are undoubtedly a great many elements on every ecommerce page that could be tweaked to improve the online retail customer journey.

We would always suggest that any tweaks should be split tested to ensure you have accurate data informing you which is the most profitable variation. Experimenting not only allows you to trump your marketing department HIPPOS (highest paid person’s opinion) with hard data, but provides priceless insights on how to build an optimal user journey.

Plus, because of that shift in buyer behaviour, it is imperative that you test everything before making the change so you can compare apples with apples. There’s no point comparing it your traffic from September as the mentality of buying is so much different during this period.

And with this much determined traffic, even small improvements could mean a big upswing in revenue.

But, wait! With change, comes risk.

There are two schools of thought on experimenting during traffic spikes. Some see it as an opportunity to squeeze out more experiments.

More traffic = More experiments

More experiments = More insights

Many others would avoid it – the stakes are too high to risk mistakes. So let’s break it down by looking at the pros vs cons.

The Pros of testing during traffic spikes

More visitors means more sales, provided the baseline revenue per visitor (RPV) is stable during the spike in Christmas sales.

A 5% uplift in conversion of a larger number of visitors is going to give you a greater return than a 5% of a smaller number of visitors.

Guaranteed traffic spikes are rare so it’s vital to exploit this opportunity. It’s crucial to deploy data driven experiments. Experiments backed by thorough research and confidence in improving conversion.

There is also the simple benefit of more traffic, which means much quicker results.

When the numbers are small, it can be difficult for an experiment to achieve statistical significance and to draw any conclusion. It can take months before you can trust the numbers.

Thankfully, with this much more traffic, you get more data – and it’s data quantity that gives you accuracy in your test results. With this extra traffic volume, we often run tests at 2x or 3x the velocity that we can at any other time of year.

The Cons of testing during traffic spikes

All sounds good doesn’t it? But the bigger you are, the harder you fall.

If your experiment exhibits a negative effect, it will be amplified during peak traffic periods. There is always the possibility that an experiment may not perform as you may have anticipated.

You could mitigate risk by throttling the percentage of traffic exposed to the experiment. Start small, 5% of traffic, carry out a post launch QA (quality assurance) and stop to look at early results – big negatives will start to show quickly. Once passed, increase the exposure by exposing more traffic to the experiment whilst frequently monitoring the data.

It’s also worth noting that some tools allow you to set alerts if the performance reaches a certain threshold. This will allow you to react hastily to end the experiment. Although it should be noted that some tools have a lag before the data is present.

It’s a winner! (But… is it really?)

So you’ve got yourself a nice big winner. But can you be certain the results are all because of your test? There may be promotions and vouchers that you should be aware of. It is important to consider segmenting users using such promotions (vouchers etc) as they may behave differently. They most likely know what they want and have a valid reason for buying it from you. They may see your beautiful new experiment, but are armed with a 50% off voucher, they may blast past.  Of course, that would also be true of people who see the control version, but it is something you should be considering when analysing results.

In conclusion…

Provided you have a comprehensive process for QA and UAT (user acceptance testing) in place to mitigate risk and have a data driven experiment roadmap, you should experiment!

You must be prepared to keep a very close eye on your experiments and be bold in switching off any tests that even look like they might be a loser (you can always run them again in February when there is less downside). That way you keep any losses to an absolute minimum.

But, to not do any testing over Christmas can mean you’re leaving a great deal of money on the table. And nobody wants to do that.

A last word of advice from all our projects over the years…

The top mistake many websites make at Christmas is not focusing on the big opportunities. There are always many things you can look at – and they differ between every business – but you need to crunch your data to identify the biggest opportunities.

Think from a P&L point of view. From a page traffic point of view. From a traffic acquisition point of view. Examine every dataset that you’ve got right throughout the journey, from first touchpoint to completed transaction.

You want to be making sure that you’re looking at the biggest opportunities and optimising those parts of the journey first. Conversion rate optimisation is, ultimately, the process of generating more revenue and profits from each visitor on your site so start with the biggest low-hanging fruit and go from there.

To learn more about making your online retail website a success and ensure your website is easy to buy from throughout the year, read our ebook below:

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