It's no surprise that retailers' online traffic and conversions increase during the holiday season. But nothing is automatic. Retailers need to be ready.

Shoppers in San Francisco We’re moving deeper into the holiday shopping season and as we do, Datacember would like to remind you to beware of the smiling M. You know, the smiling M — the visual manifestation of the e-commerce data that compares holiday visits, conversions and conversion rates with activity during a more typical time of year. And, yes, we did just make that up. But hear us out: Start with a comparison of site visits pre-holiday season and in the heart of it. OK, starting with a comparison of visits, the smile is a little jacked up. Frankly, it looks like an M who’s had a little too much of the spiked eggnog. chart comparing October and November site visits But there is a story in this face that only a mother could love. Site visits are huge during the holiday period. Consumers are out — or rather in — shopping. They’re looking for particular gifts or inspiration. It’s a tremendous opportunity for online retailers — a time for which most have spent months preparing. If a retailer is not ready to offer shoppers relevant and helpful recommendations the 10-times spike in traffic (from October’s low to November’s high) goes from being a tremendous opportunity to a tremendous opportunity squandered. This is the time to provide an exquisite customer experience. The smiling (albeit crooked) M represents the number of visits to a relevant subset of BloomReach customers from Thanksgiving Eve through the following Tuesday compared to visits for a Wednesday through Tuesday in October. Some would say the numbers for visits between October 12 and 18 are already elevated, as a substantial number of consumers begin their holiday shopping before November. For instance, 42 percent of respondents in a BloomReach survey told research firm Survata that they would start gift shopping by Labor Day weekend. But we felt comparing a Wednesday through Tuesday stretch in October with the Wednesday through Tuesday kickoff of the traditional holiday shopping season was a reasonable way to illustrate the increase in online activity during the holidays. With elevated visits come higher conversion numbers — meaning more sales. Not a shocker, but the sales don’t just happen. Again, successful retailers have geared up for a stretch of weeks that bring in 40 percent of some companies’ annual profits. And for what it’s worth, comparing conversions does wonders for the smiling M, though the smile exhibits satisfaction more than it shows sheer joy, which would be understandable, given that the daily conversion average in the November period hit 2.9 times the October number. Chart comparing conversions in November and October Dramatic, yes. Surprising? Not really. The holiday shopping season, after all, blows away any other time of year. The National Retail Federation says U.S. consumers will spend $655.8 billion during the holiday period this year. The back-to-school season comes in second at a projected outlay this year of $75.8 billion. Yep. Quite a gap. But for retailers, perhaps no image of the smiling M is more significant that the face made by comparing conversion rates. After all, it’s great to have many more visitors to your digital sites and all the better to have many more conversions thanks to those visitors. Chart comparing conversion rate October & November The holiday season, however, also brings with it a significantly higher conversion rate. In other words, those who are out shopping are out to buy. Consider that the conversion rate averaged 1.4 percent in mid-October, but during the shopping frenzy of Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday, the figure rose to 4.4 percent. But again, that’s not to say the holiday season is a time for retailers to sit back and watch the money roll in. Instead, it’s a time to be ready, to have promotions lined up, to know who is shopping when, on what device and what it is that shopper is looking for. And how do you get ready for that? This seems like a good opportunity to recycle some advice we published about this time last year. Yes, it might be too late for this holiday season, but it’s never too early to start planning for next year. The tips come by way of Dalin Brinkman, a site optimization and mobile expert at BloomReach customer Lamps Plus. He offered the suggestions during a webinar called, “Five Tips Web Merchants Can Use to Drive Conversions: Takeaways for a Successful Start to 2016.”

  1. Adopt your taxonomy to your users and trends: Consider how your customers think as you arrange the structure of your site. Lamps Plus categorizes lamps by the type of lamp it is — table lamps, floor lamps, desk lamps etc. But it categorizes furniture by the room it goes in — dining room, kitchen, bedroom. That’s because consumers have a use in mind when they shop for a lamp and a setting in mind when they shop for furniture. It’s the type of thing you can learn by analyzing your own site. Sure, big, web-wide trends are important, Brinkman says, but so are trends that are peculiar to a specific retailer’s site. “We’re actually starting to go in and look at trends in our own (site). What we found, is there are certain trends that are more particular to us. As a lighting company, there are certain things that are more popular to our users than they would be to the general public.”

  2. Decrease user friction: Brinkman says Lamps Plus has started to look at all the places where consumers are slowed down as they go through the shopping process. Speed bumps, he calls them. Any one of them on its own is probably not enough to lose a sale, he says. But taken together, they have the potential to frustrate customers and turn them away. He and his team found that about one-third of the company’s traffic starts on mobile and then moves to desktop to complete the transaction. But that’s not easy to do, he says. The mobile and desktop sites look different — with desktop displaying rows of four products and mobile displaying rows of two. It makes it difficult for a shopper to pick up where he or she left off. And the Lamps Plus team found that shoppers increasingly were using mobile in the store, so the retailer trained sales people to work with mobile-toting consumers. They made sure those salespeople earned a commission on sales, even if the customer purchased on mobile while in the store. “There are a million different paths that users take,” Brinkman said. “The more we identify places that can reduce friction, then the happier our users are with us.”

  3. Presentation is everything: In looking at the Lamps Plus site, Brinkman and his team noticed that some products were just not made to be stand-alone images on a website. Mirrors for instance — plain rectangles, one after another. So the merchandisers used Photoshop to add relevant backgrounds and objects, putting the once-solitary mirror in a bathroom over a vanity, for instance. And while the move seems very from-the-gut, Brinkman’s team members, in fact, tested their ideas, monitoring clicks and conversions. Some changes bombed. Pictures of mirrors on wallpapered walls, for instance. But others, those with a relatively plain background, were a huge hit. “It was amazing to see the result,” Brinkman said. “We saw an immediate increase in conversions and we’re up 30 percent in the time since we started.”

  4. Identify different landing-page behavior: Yes, Lamps Plus understands its shoppers’ demographics, but they took that understanding one step further, Brinkman said. Why not look at how different users behave in relation to different landing pages. For instance, Brinkman said, some pages brought out the “hardware store problem.” You know the drill: You line up a home improvement project, pick up what you think you need at the hardware store and then spend the rest of the day making return trips to the for things you didn’t know you needed. Some pages, like those for chandeliers, are gateway pages, Brinkman said. They might not have a high number of conversions, but in ways far beyond other pages, they attract shoppers who return again and again to the Lamps Plus site. On reflection, Brinkman says, the phenomenon makes sense, given that a shopper might pay $4,000 for a chandelier. “It’s a signature product,” he says. “Once they get it, they tend to want to purchase other products that match that look and feel. So, they come back to us multiple times.” The insights helped the company guide its marketing efforts and consider ways to get the most out of its landing pages.

  5. Identify marketing channel behaviors: Lamps Plus merchandisers noticed that customers who come from social media tend to be younger than organic search visitors, who tend to be younger than paid search visitors. When you think about it, some pages have a bigger concentration of traffic from search, for instance. Merchandisers at Lamps Plus keep the paid search demographic in mind, then, when focusing on those particular pages. While exploring channels, Brinkman said his team discovered something else interesting. Again he used chandeliers as an example. Modern chandeliers, he said, are far and away the most popular style on the site. But a good portion of shoppers arriving at the chandelier page, about 25 percent, are actually looking for a traditional chandelier, Brinkman said. When only modern chandeliers were displayed in the top two rows of the page, those shoppers would bounce, he said. Based on consumer behavior data, the merchandising team decided to move some traditional chandeliers up to the first two rows displayed. Brinkham said the move reduced bounce rate by 77 percent: “It was a big win for us.”

And remember, the holiday shopping season is a time to shine — and prosper — and to pay close attention to the shape of your particular enterprise’s smiling M. Photo of holiday shoppers in San Francisco by Mike Cassidy. Charts based on data analysis across a subset of BloomReach customers. Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.