Providing a great customer experience is something merchants aim for year-round. However over the holiday season, it’s even more important as your experience is truly put to the test.
Throughout the rest of the year, customer concerns and issues are easier to manage both from the customer side and business side. Perhaps they’re purchasing a gift for a birthday, so they need to find that perfect gift and have it arrive on time, and that pressure is manageable. Over the holidays, that pressure is amplified as they’re looking for several gifts for different people, and they need them to be delivered by specific dates.
An additional issue comes after the holidays for merchants of how they can continue delivering a great experience to ensure they retain the customers and audiences they’ve gained over the festive season.
We’re going to look at how you can help alleviate the pressure off customers during the holidays, and what you can do afterwards to boost customer retention.
What customers want to know during the holidays
Order status and delivery
One of the primary concerns for customers as the clock ticks down on the holiday season is around order status. They want to know where their order is, how much longer until it arrives, and exact dates if possible. 97% of customers expect to be able to monitor their order throughout the entire process, yet less than half say retailers often meet their delivery time expectations.
The key lies in managing expectations, and then helping your customer understand where their order is in the fulfillment process. To do this, you need to start giving them that information before they make a purchase as well as after they’ve clicked “buy now”.
Send and post order deadline reminders
Let customers know on all your channels when they need to order by if they want their delivery to arrive before specific dates. Include which options will be available until which dates, for example if you offer 2 day shipping as well as standard 3-5 day shipping, do they have different cut-offs? Use email segmentation to tailor messaging, for example to previous customers who ordered around the holidays last year who haven’t yet done so again this year.
Add extra emails to your automated flows
The more information during the holiday season, the better. When a customer places an order, they want frequent updates about the status of that order and when to expect it. Add in a couple of extra emails into your post-purchase flows, triggered by their order status. For example if it has been 3 days since dispatch and it is still in transit, send an email reiterating the expected arrival date and giving the customer a link to their tracking information. With all the emails they receive over the holidays, the tracking info sent previously may become buried, so they’ll appreciate this extra help.
Offer self-service support options
The holidays are extremely busy for customer support teams. If you typically see a lot of enquiries coming through about common and easily resolved issues, then it may mean you need to bolster your self-service options. Create a holiday specific FAQ with information about deadlines, returns, and other common holiday issues. Add these topics and answers also to any chatbots or AI that you may use, and implement a real-time tracking tool.
Throughout the rest of the year, customers may be happy to wait on a back-in-stock notification when a product they want isn’t available. However with the time constraints of the holiday season, they may be less willing to do so and this will ultimately impact their experience with your store.
While you may not be able to improve stock levels, you can improve how much information you give to your customers.
- Display stock availability on product pages.
- Create temporary collections that automatically hide out-of-stock products.
- Post on social media when items are running low on inventory.
- Send low-in-stock email campaigns, especially to those who were interested in those products running low.
- Remove out-of-stock items from browse and cart abandonment flows.
- Offer product recommendations to browse/cart abandonment subscribers if the items they were interested in are out of stock.
- Add to your out-of-stock strategy by adding the option to buy gift cards instead on product pages.
The more information the customer has, the less opportunity they’ll have to be left disappointed by an item being out of stock. It can be frustrating to get an email that the item they want isn’t available, but it’s less frustrating than going back to your cart only to discover that the item is no longer available.
Whether you’re buying for one person or thirty different relatives, picking the right gift is no easy task. Some are easy to buy for, and the idea comes to us right away. Other times we’re left scratching our heads and that’s when we turn to the internet for help. Data from Google shows a massive increase in search terms around “thoughtful gifts for ___”, “easy gift ideas”, and “gifts for ___ has everything”. When people don’t know what to buy or where to begin, these search terms are an obvious first step to discovering new ideas.
That’s why you need two very important elements on your store during the holiday season - gift guides, and gift idea landing pages.
Gift guide blogs are great for your store’s SEO, leading new customers to find your brand as a solution to their issue of finding a good gift. The people using these terms aren’t your usual audience, so you need to consider what language and terms someone may use if they’re trying to find a gift for your target audience. Make these guides easy to follow, with simple language avoiding any jargon that may be associated with your niche.
Gift idea landing pages are a huge help to customers looking for gifts. Create temporary collections based on your gift guides and also different categories of gift purchasing. Not everyone will be looking specifically for a person or hobby/interest, for example “Gifts under $100”, “Stocking stuffers” etc. These will be a huge help to customers who may find navigating through your catalog intimidating if they’re unfamiliar, and it provides them a huge amount of convenience if they’re looking for something specific whether that be a product type, gift recipient, or price band.
Finding the right gift is stressful at the best of times, nevermind when you’re running out of time. Even as your order deadline passes, there is still more you can do to engage your customers and help them find that ideal last-minute gift idea.
If you have a physical storefront, then you can still make the most of your local audience. Use your store data to send emails and SMS messages letting customers local to your store when your opening hours are especially in the days leading up to the holidays. Send out special offers and any in-store promotions you’ll be running. If you offer Buy-Online-Pickup-In-Store (BOPIS) as a fulfillment option, be sure to promote this also to local customers and include it on key pages on your site such as product pages and any holiday landing pages.
As for online-only customers, you can still offer them a valuable option - gift cards. 44% of last-minute shoppers plan to buy gift cards, and they’re a popular option to receive as a gift. Promote gift cards to those in your audience who haven’t yet ordered and perhaps are in your browse or cart abandonment email flows, and send SMS reminders of gift cards to these subscribers. When your order deadline passes, include a link to gift cards as a site banner and give them greater prominence on key holiday landing pages.
What customers want to know after the holidays
Gift card redemption
Gift card sales are on the rise, and that means even more people receiving them over the holiday season. Especially if a product is out of stock, if the gift purchaser isn’t sure what to buy, last minute gifts, or if you’re experiencing supply chain issues, gift cards can be a huge asset. However it isn’t just important to engage the customer until they purchase a gift card. What you do in the days and weeks after the recipient has been given their gift card matters just as much if you want to make a great impression and boost chances for retention.
Use your marketing channels to speak to and engage those who purchased or received gift cards, showing them products that they may like once the holiday season has passed. With email, create an audience segment for those who purchased gift cards and send emails that offer product recommendations, for example “Here are some ideas for your gift card” that they can share with the recipient. Include these ideas on social media also, speaking more directly to recipients i.e. “Got a gift card over the holidays? Here’s what’s new in the store”. This post-holiday campaign across channels will help to engage those gift card recipients. It will also help with gift card redemption, as some studies suggest that as much as 20% of gift cards go unspent. A campaign focussed on engaging gift card recipients will demonstrate to those who purchased them that you’re encouraging them to be spent, which will give them a more positive impression of your store.
To really drive redemption, send reminders to gift card customers if the gift card hasn’t yet been used a few weeks after the holidays. One of the primary reasons why a gift card goes unspent is due to the recipient simply forgetting they received it. With how hectic and busy the holiday season can be, it’s easy to forget that you have a gift card still to use. From a purely business-led perspective, you want customers to redeem gift cards as most will spend over the value of the card, so it’s in your best interest to encourage customers to use their gift cards.
Returns policy information
While they aren’t the most exciting part of running an ecommerce business, returns and exchanges are a vital part of the customer experience and one which you definitely want to get right. Providing customers with an extremely easy returns process can make a big impact on their perception of their overall experience with your store, so falling behind in this key area can then affect retention. Research shows that 61% of consumers say returns policies are “very important” to their decision to make a purchase, and 76% who highly rated their returns experience with a retailer new to them would make a purchase again in the future.
To provide the best returns experience possible, merchants should first consider why people will be looking for returns and exchanges. Throughout the rest of the year, the reasons vary greatly but over the holiday season they may be different. According to a survey by Ware2Go, customers returned items after the holidays due to the following:
- 35% said the item not as pictured or described
- 33% said their order didn’t arrive on time
- 31% said the fit of what they’d bought wasn’t right
- 31% ordered multiple items to compare
People are buying gifts for other people, so they may be making a rough guess on sizing for clothing if they don’t know the recipient’s size. During periods of supply chain disruption, it’s more likely that gifts don’t arrive on time.
Next, you want to have a plan for who is requesting the return. If the original customer who purchased the gift had it sent directly to the recipient, and discovered the item wasn’t fit for purpose, it may then be up to the recipient to handle the return. If the customer had it delivered to their home and later gave it to the recipient, again this adds some complexity to how to handle the return.
To manage this, merchants should have a clear holiday returns strategy and policy that makes it clear how to handle these slightly tricky scenarios. You want to cover the following topics:
The duration of your holiday returns period - If your usual period is 30 days, consider extending this to the end of January to accommodate returns.
How to initiate a return - Make this clear on your site and through emails to avoid clogging your customer support inbox. Clarify how this should be done depending on who is returning the item i.e. the original customer, or the gift recipient.
Options for returns - Do you offer free returns? Where should customers take their returns packages? Can they return in-store?
Item condition - Specify in what condition the item should be returned to your in order to receive a refund or exchange e.g. tags intact.
The clearer this is, the better the experience for your customers and the more likely they will be to have a positive perception of your store even if the item they received was unsuitable. This will ultimately boost retention, not just for the original customer but also for the recipient of the gift if they were involved in the process also.
During the holiday season it can be easy to get tangled up in the day-to-day of running a business throughout such a busy period. Sales targets, inventory management, fulfillment - it’s a lot to consider. Taking the time to step back and look at what more you can do to make customers’ lives a little easier during this period will keep your store in the forefront of their minds, and give them an experience that they’ll remember long after the holidays are over.