We're in the middle of a steamy August in Florida, but online retailers are already thinking about December and the holidays. With this year's fourth-quarter online sales predicted to exceed $100 billion, who can blame them? Here are seven ways you can make your e-commerce site pay off in December.

1. BECOME A RESOURCE FOR CONTENT

Web users go online in search of specific information and answers. By providing this content, you position yourself (your site) as the expert. This will drive relevant and potentially repeat traffic-and sales-to your site. Also consider having two sites. One would provide content about the industry and products while driving traffic to the second site, which sells the products.

2. WRITE DETAILED PRODUCT AND CATEGORY DESCRIPTIONS

Search engines love detail. You would be amazed at how adding keyword-loaded copy into your product and category descriptions can improve your search engine results and bolster your page rankings. For example, an online consumer looking for tennis rackets will type "tennis rackets," not "sports equipment" in the search field. So if you are selling sports equipment, add a paragraph of copy on the search results pages for tennis rackets, telling the visitor about the latest technology and various brands you carry.

3. OFFER VISITORS AN INCENTIVE TO BUY

Today's online shoppers have a world of opportunities. Online retailers need to be creative and competitive to entice consumers who are often making their buying decisions solely on price. Try offering free shipping or discount programs as a way to give visitors a reason to choose you over the competition.

4. DESIGN A GOOD HOME PAGE

The home page is the most important page on a Web site because it must capture the visitor's attention. Keep it clean and simple, and use large graphics sparingly to reduce load time-your customers' time is valuable and they won't wait. Second, add roughly 200 words of keyword-rich introduction copy. Lastly, provide up-to-date content that changes frequently, such as press releases, news and events so that you stay on the search engine's radar as it looks for more information to index. Our traffic at GravityFree's Web site, for example, went up about 30 percent simply by adding home page copy and our latest six press releases.

5. INCREASE YOUR AVERAGE PER ORDER TOTALS

Successful retailers know the value of increasing their per order totals. It's that pack of gum or Peanut M&M's you toss in while in the checkout line. Online retailers use similar tactics, including cross-selling related products, offering packages and volume discount incentives as well as gift-wrapping. For example, Beneva Flowers presents its online visitors with options on the site's flower arrangement pages, such as adding a few more roses to the arrangement or selecting a better quality vase. These little extras really add up and boost your bottom line.

6. RETAIN EXISTING CUSTOMERS

Experts say the cost of acquiring business from a new customer is seven times greater than acquiring business from an existing customer. The key is to steadily increase the number of repeat orders from existing customers. Stay in front of your customers. Offer them special pricing incentives, send a regular electronic newsletter or provide convenient site features like auto-ordering and occasion reminders that keep your customers coming back. For example, Sarasota's Willow506.com sends out a new electronic newsletter each Friday to its entire customer database so the clothing boutique is never far from their minds.

7. START YOUR DESIGN OR REDESIGN EARLY

Online retail has the same "buying season" as traditional retail, a.k.a The Holidays! Don't wait until you're carving the Halloween pumpkin to decide it's time to redesign your site. Good e-commerce sites take a minimum of 60 days to produce, and up to 90 days after the site goes live to allow the search engines to index your pages. Plus, you'll need a chance to fine-tune your rankings before Thanksgiving. Start your e-commerce project now.

Ray Villares ([email protected]) is co-owner of GravityFree Web Design, www.gravityfree.com, and Chairma n of the Small Business Council for the Sarasota Chamber. 

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