The big plan – 25 ways for a Merry ecommerce Christmas

Ideas to improve your Q4 results

Yes, it is that time of year again. For many retailers, looking for Christmas marketing ideas began as soon as last Christmas drew to a close.

You may think that the only people who need to look this far ahead are those who use overseas suppliers with tiny product runs and long lead times. Think again…

  • It’s increasingly likely that you’ll be coordinating work across at least one other platform besides desktop.
  • You may also need to create a printed catalogue or other material that will be subject to printers’ time-scales.
  • And as ever you don’t know what your competitors are planning (and with the pace of change in technology it could be something revolutionary).

So even the little retailer who thinks he has little to do will have a lot more to do this year than in any Christmas before.

With so much at stake it’s important to put your plan in place well before consumers come looking for something to click on. According to Time some customers began shopping for Christmas 2013 in early September which means your offering needs to be ready before Q4 even begins.

There’s truth in the punchline that many men won’t even think of buying until the week before Christmas, or even Christmas Eve itself. But for most retailers these buyers still form a minority of customers.

The big plan for Christmas

  1. Analyse your results from last Christmas. Identify where weak points occurred, things you didn’t have time for and what worked well. It’s important to differentiate between repeatable patterns and circumstances beyond your control. There will always be different unforeseen factors that throw your plan in the air; the key is to accept the need for flexibility.

    Consider more than sales figures. Analyse where you could streamline logistics and delivery or adjust stock levels. Do you need to increase staffing levels by using temporary staff? Could you outsource professional functions you had less time for over the Christmas period? Do you need to improve performance of the website in the face of sudden peaks? A full analysis of the trading period needs to investigate all areas where you could improve performance.

  1. There are many unknown variables that can surface around plans for the future but one certainty that you can always rely on with Christmas is the end date. You should work back from the 25th to set in place the other stages of your campaign, such as determining the last date that you can accept orders and still guarantee delivery.
  1. Well before the season begins take a look at how your competitors are approaching this Christmas. Study their websites and subscribe to their mailing lists. It may be too late for this year to learn from any insights but they may be invaluable for next year. And in the worst-case scenario you’ll understand where your customers have disappeared to.

Marketing your site as a visitor attraction for repeat visits

  1. If you want visitors to keep revisiting your site you have to give them reasons to do so. It may be simpler to envisage ways to achieve this if you imagine trying to create the opposite effect – ways to persuade people never to come back. Tell people that in one visit they’ve seen all you have to offer. Guarantee there will be no promotions and state that you’ll be ignoring the other traditional days within the festive period. Be sure to warn them that you don’t care what anyone else is doing and you won’t be making any special arrangements for Christmas at all because you just want it to go away.

    If you look at it in these terms you’ll see that what you have to create is something more than the words ‘Christmas campaign’ suggests. You have to create an ongoing visitor attraction where there’s always something new and something new to look forward to.

For ongoing interest many sites adopt the format of an advent calendar – indeed you could call it the default format. This has lots of practical benefits as it corresponds with offering a ‘deal of the day’.

Although ‘default’ may be practical it can also be dull, and that’s the opposite of what you want to achieve. If you’re going to make an advent calendar the face of your website, then perhaps explore technology to come up with something that transforms it into a new experience.


  1. At its simplest level a Christmas theme is a good way to show that you’re organised for Christmas – it’s like throwing open the shop doors. Keeping it fresh with new banners and displays is the visual clue that what you have to offer is inexhaustible. It’s also a good way to get people in the mood to shop.

    Consider re-shooting or re-creating imagery that has inappropriate seasonal styling. For instance you may be displaying images of a bicycle helmet with backgrounds of a summer’s day when you’re now promoting winter protection. In a similar way, ensure the front image for a particular product corresponds with the season. So for example if you offer various designs for your vouchers then make sure that the front image is more seasonal than a birthday cake. You’ll find more suggestions for online visual merchandising in the post Online visual merchandising – photography.

  2. The approaching date has significance to visitors so consider using a countdown to create a sense of urgency. After all the date is the reason they’re shopping in the fist place.
  3. Enable visitors to create wish-lists so that they can extend the purchase process beyond one individual visit. Ensure you highlight the ability to use a wish-list as a notepad for ideas and return visits.
    Cats for online Christmas

    Wish-lists to sing about
    Image credit:kimsintn

    • An important capability for Christmas is to share wish-lists with friends and family using email or social media.
    • Wish-lists should be portable as customers have come to expect account synchronisation across all their devices. Of course portability across different sites would be even more attractive.
    • If you’ve already sorted out the nuts-and-bolts functionality, is there a way to make your wish-list embody the magic of the word ‘wish’?

  1. You could incentivise repeat visits even before the build-up to Christmas. Plan promotions such as ‘For every purchase in our autumn sale we will give you a £10 voucher to spend in December’. Or for many visits how about ‘5% off every day in December’?
  1. Adjust your offering when delivery deadlines have passed. Give more prominence to advertising for vouchers and life-experience products. It may be possible to offer vouchers with same-day delivery, collect-from-store or as digital download life-savers. Consider suggesting these alternatives automatically in the event of out-of-stocks. Remember that vouchers produce a return visit to the site with a likelihood of further purchases, and purchases over the denomination of the voucher.
    1. Use personalisation options to transform a generic voucher with options to add text or images – find ways to make it a special gift. An audio or video message may be an attractive addition.
    2. Suggest vouchers as add-ons for physical gifts – i.e. the recipient could use a voucher to buy accessories for the product they’ve received.
    3. Offer a plastic gift card option for a sturdier gift that encourages topping up, perhaps as an ongoing gift. If it’s intended for use throughout the year then limit seasonal styling to the accompanying card.
    4. Investigate possibilities for joining a voucher scheme across several retailers. This would make vouchers more attractive to the recipient.
  1. For an online Christmas price may not be the most important factor to customers. When trying to provide a better selling proposition than your competitors, consider other options that now become more relevant:
    • The key selling point at Christmas is often the availability of a late delivery date. One company I worked for did shave several days off delivery by changing both their carrier and their warehouse. Unfortunately it may not be possible to improve logistics without long-term planning. In research for Christmas 2013, a quarter of respondents said they would pay extra for same-day delivery, or delivery during a one-hour window.

    • Offer free wrapping or gift-cards (especially if the gift-card includes a voucher for your post-Christmas sale). But there’s limited scope for making a big impact here. The Christmas 2013 Online Shopping Survey Report found that only 14% of US respondents made use of gift-wrapping services, and only 11% in the UK. The trend for this service shows that demand has remained constant since 2012.
    • Suggest product bundles which will also increase basket size.
    • Try to stock related products and stocking-fillers that don’t bump up the delivery charge.
    • Increase the returns period in line with gift purchasing cycles (this is so widespread that it’s almost become standard).
    • Increase stock cover for headline products, bearing in mind that in the fourth quarter you may be selling a larger proportion of stock.
    • Offer 24/7 customer service or live chat for any last-minute questions, and be prepared for a lot more than usual.
    • If there’s a national delivery disruption (even if you’re the one that caused it) make this a reason to promote your 24hr customer service heroes…
    • …and the word ‘heroes’ leads on to matters of charity and good will to all men. Christmas is a time for your customers to see that you have a community spirit.

      For inspiration about how to become a source of inspiration take a look at Or read this post: Find an Ebola cure by turning on your computer.


The online Christmas story

  1. In marketing there’s more than one Christmas story. Marketers may see a ‘story’ or ‘theme’ as the logical structure that underpins activities.

    Over these months you can vary the message to highlight key dates and features of the period in a logical progression.

    Alongside key dates you can cycle your story through the main areas of what you have to offer:

    • Product categories such as ‘Gifts for Men’
    • Cross-product categories such as ‘Winter Warmers’
    • Stocking fillers, personalised gifts, last-order dates…

*That’s New Year’s Eve, if you haven’t been blessed with Scottish ancestry.

Online Christmas is a time for stories

Image credit: © Copyright 2014 Donald McLeman

A perfect marketing story

In 2011 John Lewis created a campaign celebrating the ‘Joy of Giving’. An emotive advert follows a boy as he counts down to Christmas. The viewer assumes that the present to be opened is his own but on the last day it’s revealed that he’s been waiting to give this gift to his parents.

Part of the campaign was an online competition called ‘Guess the Gift’ where a series of video-hints showed some of the company’s top products. The campaign kept shoppers engaged throughout the period whilst promoting the company’s products to a receptive audience.


You may not have the budget of John Lewis to create happy endings. But if you understand what the Christmas period entails you can aim to give it structure through a comprehensive marketing story. You need a story that covers everything and everything fits.

  1. You can still be creative away from the big budgets of TV advertising. A key feature of digital media is the prevalence of many channels. Gone are the days where advertising was limited to one TV channel alone. Indeed much of the appeal of campaigns such as the one described above is the creative use of multiple channels. There’s no upper limit to the number of channels available, especially when you include Twitter accounts for fictional characters.

    You can now create a vibrant campaign using free channels such as email and social media, and target it better than ever before.

    You can find a discussion on employing creativity in the article:

    For advice on how to boost your creative thinking please take a look at:


Prepare your website for war

As well as getting ready for Christmas you have to prepare your website to withstand it. The main concern is the ability for your servers to survive huge spikes in traffic so make sure to load-test well in advance of the Christmas season.

Even if your website doesn’t crash completely there may be significant impacts to page speed. Research by Kissmetrics shows that every one second delay in load time can reduce conversions by 7%. As you’ll be experiencing higher volumes of traffic during this period that figure amounts to a much bigger loss than at any other time of year.

On top of the conversion loss, page-speed is a core part of Google’s algorithm so there may be future repercussions too.

  1. Significant gains may only be possible at the server end. This would involve upgrades to your hosting package such as on-demand scaling to match the bandwidth you require. Some changes to the frontend also have the potential to reduce demand on your server: plan ways to reduce page size and hence load times.
    • Consider removing some content. For example, replace large images with smaller versions or remove entire sections altogether.
    • You may be familiar with compression, caching and image optimisation. Your developer can tell you about other techniques such as minimising assets and asynchronous loading. However it’s likely that an established ecommerce website has already put these measures into place.
  2. To ensure the stability of the platform it’s advisable to test major functional changes to the website before this period begins. Plan a code freeze from early autumn to keep changes to a minimum. Remember that the added stress that shoppers are under means they will be less willing to tolerate problems or unfamiliar usability issues. You also need to set an internal technology freeze before the holiday season so that staff are familiar with how systems work.
  3. Attempt to funnel traffic to the correct areas of the site; this will also be of direct benefit to the customer. You can ease the way for recognised shopping patterns by displaying products in ways meaningful to the customer:
    • At other times of the year shoppers may be seeking to fulfil specific product needs, but during the Christmas period many visitors to your site will be looking for ideas.
    • Create special Christmas gift pages such as ‘Stocking Fillers’, ‘Gifts for Men’ and ‘Gifts for Women’ where shoppers can browse for ideas. If you have a Pinterest account you could create boards to reflect these gift idea pages.
    • Create categories across product types that reflect the function that the customer is searching to fulfil, e.g. ‘Winter Warmers’ for coats and hats and boots and jumpers and scarves.
    Word cloud online Christmas tree
    • Feature these categories in suggestions for related products.
    • Optimise these categories for search. Display them prominently as they are likely to be an important part of the shopping process.
    • List new ‘popular searches’ on the homepage to link to key categories and products.
    • Create a separate Christmas gift landing page to serve as a hub for your sub-category pages. As the season progresses you can display an increasing amount of information on the homepage itself.


The big plan – 25 ways for a Merry ecommerce Christmas
The big plan – 25 ways for a Merry ecommerce Christmas
Every day's a shopping day but an online Christmas is at the centre of the trading calendar. Prepare your offering, not just your website.
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  • Hi Donald,

    I’ve got to admit, I was a little surprised to see “Christmas” in the blog post title. ;-)

    Then I read your first few lines, and seems I have the wrong mentality! You’re right, planning is everything.

    Even though I’m no longer a Power Seller on eBay or selling physical products there, I should definitely consider the buying trends online for the last quarter and take to heart your excellent advice.

    I think you’ve sparked an idea for a new income stream, Donald, so thank you for your article. Must keep it under wraps right now, but will share in about 3 weeks.

    Thanks for sharing this comprehensive guide on getting ready for Christmas business by planning – and have a great evening. :-)

    – Carol

    • I’m really pleased you’ve seen an idea for a new income stream! I’ll be looking out for that post.

      I wasn’t sure what people would think about a Christmas post in September, I really thought it might be too late! It’s obviously far too early for consumers but it’s not early for people selling to them.

      Thanks for the comment, I’ll add the word ‘plan’ back into the title!