Final Check: Ecommerce Preparations for Holiday 2019

In a few short weeks, the 2019 holiday season will be in full swing. It can be a time of efficiency and great profits – or it can create stress and frustration (and probably a mix of both). Online retailers typically have higher volumes of site traffic and conversions over the holidays. At the same time, companies have to spend more on advertising and customer support to take full advantage of the season.

To help retailers land a successful busy season, in this episode of Recommerce, Sara and Nicole discuss ecommerce strategies and tips for the holiday rush. You’ll learn:

  • When to bring your development team and other vendors into your plan
  • Why it’s never too early for guerrilla user testing
  • The role of mobile conversions and progressive web apps this year
  • Why you’re probably going to have more last-minute shoppers in 2019
  • How to use Q1 of 2020 to get into pole position for next year

Full Episode Transcript

For more holiday ecommerce tips be sure to check out our recent post: Holiday 2019: Stay Ahead of the Craze and Capture Ecommerce Sales.

Nicole: Hi there, everybody. This is Nicole from Command C. And I’m here with Sara Bacon, the founder of Command C.

Sara: Hey, Nicole. How are you doing today?

Nicole: I’m great, I’m great. It’s good to be here. I’m excited that we’re going to talk about how to prepare your ecommerce business for the holiday season. It is almost here.

Sara: It is almost here and I’m excited to talk about it too. We’ve had a lot of years of experience in holiday season madness.

I actually think that leads right into maybe the most important aspect of this topic, which is planning, right? You know, one of the things that I see way too often is the last-minute scramble, right? It kind of parallels the “Oh crap, I didn’t get my child a gift.” If you’re that kind of parent. But yeah, it’s the last-minute scramble and …

Nicole: How can somebody avoid that?

Sara: The real answer is to start planning in Q1. And I know that that’s going to make some people’s jaws drop, but making it manageable is the key to success here. And in Q1 you’re closest to what happened in the holiday season last year, if you’re like many businesses. But I will say that this formula and what we’re going to talk about today applies to businesses whose … It’s really about when your busy season is, right? The goal is, you know, we have some clients whose busy season is Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day or whatever-

Nicole: Back to school, sure.

Sara: Yeah, that’s kind of arbitrary. But the point is to start planning immediately after your busy season. The lessons learned from the season before are freshest in your mind then. The data is easily accessible then. And really, it’s kind of coming up with a quarterly plan of what worked, what didn’t work last season, what are our goals for the upcoming season and how and when do we need to implement the steps to set us up for success in achieving those goals in the best possible way.

The best time to start planning for your holiday sales season is in Q1 when the most recent holiday experience is fresh in your mind and data.

Nicole: I think that’s such a great point. You know, you could come off of the high season, the busy season, and even though you might be a little frazzled on the other side of it, you have all that data, all that experience that you just went through fresh in your mind. And it also really makes me think about laying the groundwork for your KPIs going into whatever that next busy season is, be it a year away. But that’s the time really to take a look at what was your conversion rate? What was your cart abandonment rate? You know, sales volume, traffic volume, all of that kind of thing. Like really just pinpointing a moment in time when you can establish what all those numbers are. So then you have those numbers to compare with next year when you’re in your busy season. And you can once again see what worked and what didn’t. But hopefully you’re seeing some growth in those numbers.

Sara: Absolutely. And proceeding that is to make sure that you have the right analytics in place to enable you to collect those KPIs. I mean, making sure Google Tag Manager is in place and all your other Google Analytics and any other third parties that you’re using are not only set up correctly but set up to record the data that’s important for your business.

So reflecting on the year before, that’s one of the first questions to ask, is “Are we collecting everything that we need to collect to get the most meaningful data for our business?” And if not, that’s a great item to put into your backlog. I know we talk about backlogs all the time. But really, it’s having this kind of a list of … It’s a wishlist, right?

Nicole: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara: And then constantly prioritizing and re-prioritizing what needs to be addressed next really puts you in a position to kind of capitalize on forward momentum.

One of the first questions is, “Are we collecting the most meaningful data for our business?”

Nicole: I think that’s a great point. But it brings a question to mind though. What happens if you get those numbers in place, but yet you still don’t exactly know what you want to do next with your site? Are there ways of testing things out or running things that maybe could help an ecommerce business kind of make some decisions about how they want to go forward?

Sara: Yeah, what you’re asking about is really interesting. So it goes back to our Challenge, Equilibrium, Growth model. And you know, Challenge and Equilibrium are marked by sort of knowing the pain points of your current site, right?

Nicole: Okay.

Sara: Maybe it’s customer complaints or you’re just very keenly aware of what’s not working on the site, then those are always high-priority items to address. It’s really sort of when you get to the state of not knowing what’s not working on your site, that you start to move into equilibrium and growth.

That said, it’s never too early to implement some guerrilla user-testing strategies, right? So user testing, split testing, these are big categories that there are lots of different ways to go about them. There are very specific points in a business’s growth cycle when things like A/B testing start to make sense. But guerrilla-user testing, and I’ll explain what I mean by this in a moment, is something you can literally do and should be doing any and all the time. And really all I mean by that is gather up five different folks that you know who are not familiar with your site, like this could be-

Nicole: Your parents’ best friends and three friends from college.

It’s never too early to implement some guerrilla user testing strategies.

Sara: Exactly, right. Articulate the top five key actions that you would want a user to take who’s visiting your site, and ask them to take those actions, and then document and provide their feedback on what that experience was like for them.

I see time and time again, as folks who are working on the site or if you’re a merchant and it’s your website, we’re so close to these things that when we bring in someone who doesn’t have any experience with the site just to play around with it, these incredible insights get illuminated that, you know, everyone else just thought worked seamlessly.

So that’s something you can do any time. And I really encourage merchants especially in advance of this time of year that you want to capitalize on every opportunity that you have. Because chances are you have more traffic…

Nicole: People are coming to you, yes.

Sara: So set yourself up for maximum success.

Nicole: I love that. And so, okay, so what we then have determined is retailers setting their KPIs, having their analytics in place, knowing where they want to go, doing some guerrilla-user testing to work out any kinks, kind of get an outsider view of how the site could be optimized. With that in mind, at what point should a retailer bring in their development team?

Sara: Well, I would say meet with all your vendors early in the year and loop them into your plan, right? If you’re planning a site migration this year, you need to meet with your third-party vendors early, right? And that could be your design team, your marketing team, whatever. Whatever your plan is, loop your collaborators in sooner rather than later, so that they can give you feedback on what their availability is.

Whatever your plan is, loop your collaborators in sooner rather than later, so that they can give you feedback on their availability.

In our world, [the holidays are] not only our clients’ busy season, but it’s also our busy season. So us having advanced notice of what our clients are planning to do for the year enables us to help them plan strategically and strategize.

It’s not just about having the time to build in new features, but it’s often … You don’t want to make a major change right in advance of the holidays. You want to make a major change when you have time to test before here-

Nicole: Right, absolutely.

Sara: Compromising this super important time of year. And then, the other piece of that is ensuring that you have the support that you need when the time comes to pass, right? So one of the services that we offer is emergency support. We beef that up during the holiday season and offer some different options for clients because we really want to be there to support them and make sure that there isn’t something catastrophic happening that they can’t get addressed during this time.

Interlude: You’re listening to Recommerce, a podcast for ecommerce wearable brands navigating technical complexity and change, brought to you by Command C, a development team that saves ecommerce retailers from outdated tech and ineffective operations, with a strong focus on Magento and Shopify Plus. You can learn more about how we help at

Nicole: All right, so we’re getting close to the holidays. Retailers know that their site load is going to increase. There’s going to be more traffic coming to their sites. So can you tell me a little bit about what they can do to prepare for that?

Sara: First and foremost, you want to make sure that your server is optimized to handle not only the increased load but spikes, right? And this can apply to kind of consistent increased load, but also, we work with lots of clients who know that they have a press release coming out and it’s just going to be an immediate impact of high volume to their site. So communicating with whomever is hosting your site, even if it’s a hosted platform like BigCommerce or Shopify, it doesn’t hurt to communicate with your contact at that platform to let them know that you’re expecting additional traffic, especially in the case of a traffic spike, right?

Nicole: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara: But if you’re an open source software like Magento, and you’re responsible for your server environment, it is absolutely imperative that you communicate with your team well in advance of the holiday season or something like a press release to ensure that your site has the resources it needs.

Make sure that your server is optimized to handle not only the increased site load, but spikes in traffic, too.

This is also a really great arena to reflect on previous years’ analytics because there isn’t an exact science to hosting because you don’t ever know exactly how much traffic you’re going to get. But previous years can provide helpful analytics and benchmarks as to what we might expect and help inform how to start preparation.

Nicole: I think that’s a great point. And in thinking about things that we might expect, I was reading the other day that last year, 66% of ecommerce site traffic came from mobile devices. So that’s pretty wild. So they’re thinking that their predictions are out there that purchases on sites, over half of purchases in 2019 will be from mobile devices. So when we’re thinking about optimizing everything to just get ready for your busy season, be it the holidays or another time, but get ready, mobile is a huge component of that.

Sara: Oh, yeah, massive. And it’s like, I’m internally laughing a little bit, because there was a period in time where we just said, “Oh, people are just browsing on mobile. But they’ll eventually buy on desktop.”

Nicole: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sara: Gone are those days, right?

If you are, and again this does not apply to every single business out there, but the vast majority of businesses, especially in the wearable space – If you’re not super considering your mobile experience, there is a huge missed opportunity there.

Nicole: Yup, I agree. And also I think mobile payments like Apple Pay and things like that, where you’re just given a quick two clicks and it’s on the way to you, that kind of thing has made the mobile conversion so much better.

Experts predict: Over the 2019 holidays, more than half of ecommerce sales will happen on mobile devices.

Sara: It has. And a big topic of conversation this year are progressive web apps. So progressive web apps being mobile experiences that are still web-based experiences, so they are not specific apps that the user has to download, but an experience that is designed specifically for mobile. So it differs from a responsive experience in that it’s not just your site sort of stacking to fit a different screen dimension. It’s actually a web-based site that is different from your desktop experience because browsing on mobile is totally different-

Nicole: Totally different.

We’ve seen a huge uptake in progressive web apps this year and think they’re only going to increase.

Sara: Yeah, there’s been a huge uptake in that this year. And I think that that will only continue to increase.

Nicole: I agree. Well, cool. Well, you know, another big trend that we’re seeing for holiday 2019 is the old “buy it online, pick it up in-store.” That’s something, and this is a good time to make note, the holiday season in between Thanksgiving and Christmas is actually six days shorter in 2019 than it was in 2018. We had 32 days. We had an earlier Thanksgiving last year. We had 32 days in between those two holidays. This year we have 26.

Sara: Good point.

Nicole: So particularly with BOPIS, you know, “buy online, pick it up in-store,” that’s going to be really something that those last minute shoppers … I have a feeling Christmas is really going to sneak up on a lot of people. So if you have the ability to offer that service, that’s going to be a really good one to be able to do.

Sara: Yeah, it’s also something that younger generations I think have come to expect. And it’s a way for smaller merchants to offer some competition to the big-box stores like Best Buy, Target, whatever, who are already doing this and that’s just sort of an expected feature for them. So if you do have a brick-and-mortar store, that’s a really great feature to investigate with your team.

The holiday season in between Thanksgiving and Christmas is 6 days shorter in 2019 than it was in 2018. Prepare for last-minute shoppers.

Nicole: Absolutely. And then that also makes me just think about customer service in general. You know, I was reading a piece on the Shopify blog the other day, how customer service increased by 65% over the holiday season. So, you know, that we’re talking about a flood of traffic, so a flood of customer service inquiries as well.

Sara Bacon: Yeah.

Nicole: And I think to look at that, you’re really taking a look at like, okay, do you want to implement live chat or is that going to be phone or-

Sara Bacon: Exactly.

Nicole: Or if you’re on Shopify Plus, for example, that can be something that you automate. Like you create auto responses to the top three most frequently asked questions, for example. You can set all that kind of thing up beforehand. But what’s important is that you do just really make a game plan for that surge in inquiries that you’re going to be getting.

Sara: Yeah, and I think that your specific strategy is based on what makes sense for your business. But again, looking at this younger generation, who are really the bulk of online shoppers, first of all they want to chat before they want to pick up the phone.

Nicole: That’s true, yeah.

Sara: That’s really something, even if it’s not something you can support throughout the remainder of the year, even if you can just add that feature for your busy season, that can make a huge difference.

Customer service inquiries increase on average by 65% over the holiday season.

Nicole: Absolutely. And I think just on a final note, the things we’re talking about as far as adding customer service support, a lot of retailers experience that it’s a lot more expensive to buy ads, advertising, during the busy holiday weeks. And so, yes, you’re getting more business, but you’re also probably spending more to serve that business. And I think a really nice response for that is to give some solid attention to how you can increase your average order value. You know, you’re going to have people’s attention. So what can you do to facilitate that they’re adding more to their cart while they’re on your site?

And you know, things like that … Think about what’s your spending threshold for free shipping. And again, going back to the KPIs, okay, what was your average order value for the holidays 2018, you know?

Taking that number and then just as a rule of thumb, and every merchant needs to work this out in their own way, but as a general guideline, I’ve read that 30% addition to an average order value is a good call for offering free shipping. So if $50 was your average order value, well, then, okay, you start promoting free shipping at orders $65 or more, because that’s 30% more. And that then they’re adding more and you’re able to cover the cost of free shipping. So, that’s a good plan, too.

In increasing average order value, remember the adage: It’s less expensive to convert a current customer than it is to acquire a new one.

Sara: Yeah, it’s just like the adage of “It’s less expensive to convert a current customer than it is to acquire a new one.” So I appreciate that point. I think all these points are really the foundation to setting yourself up for success through this sometimes crazy time of year.

All right, Nicole. Well, this has been fruitful. Thank you for your time today.

Nicole: You too, you too. Always good to chat.