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Christmas season is big in Europe. And in fact, with the advent of Amazon and other online retailers offering Black Friday sales, so is the month before in particular. Long gone are the days where we would nip out for a little, quick gift a few days before Santa arrived. The reality is buyers are now better informed, more competitive and spend more when they head out to the shops for holiday spending than ever before. 

Moreover, the data points to the fact that Europeans spend more on more per year than ever. The most surprising of statistics is that they also start all that holiday shopping earlier, sometimes as early as October. Yes, October! According to research by the National Retail Federation, approximately 40% of holiday gift givers will begin their shopping before Halloween. This is why many retailers start stocking in September. What does this mean for your business? And how best to prepare for this ever important peak season? 

SMBs should start planning earlier than ever to boost business.  Here’s how:

1. Start early

No matter where you live in Europe, there is lots to do. Ordering products and stock, refurbishing display areas and putting up decorations, as well as finding and hiring additional skilled staff are all important. You want to avoid the nightmare before Christmas scenario. Being smart, keeping to a schedule, getting your data and market research done and ensuring you are stocked and ready to go is all key. The earlier you start, the better.

Similarly, you should start reaching out to customers well ahead of time. This means ensure that your email list is updated, your marketing strategy is finished, and those ever important promotions are primed and ready to go. Communicate via social media channels, send an email or do a leaflet drop in your local area letting people know how and when your product or service is ready and do it early.

2. Get into the holiday season - online

Customers go online, and they do in particular, before the holiday season. Indeed, according to research, 8 in 10 holiday shoppers are influenced by the internet before making a purchase (with search engines being the most influential). It is for that reason that your website and social media presence should be strong and on point long before St. Nick makes his appearance. 

Firstly, make sure you can manage the traffic and increase in shoppers. Ensure your website hosting company can handle an increase in visitors. You don’t want it slowing down on your busy days or crashing when you need it to be working at top performance! Next, consider your search engine optimisation (SEO) and pay per click (PPC) campaigns. This means adding holiday-specific landing pages and adapting page titles and on page copy to reflect search term reports. You should also run a short-term PPC campaign pushing traffic to your holiday pages. Finally, ensure your social media reflects the images, products and promotions you are running on your website. 

3. Manage your inventory

Some retailers make up to 50% of their yearly turnover in the run-up to Christmas. Make sure you are well stocked and don’t miss out. One way is to consider the four inventory wisdoms to follow for Christmas. First, consider the assortment of your stock. Do you sell all items via all channels (online, in store, mail..etc.), or is there a difference between channels and even within each channel? Do the necessary research to think through each specific item in your inventory. Secondly, settle on your pricing strategy. Do you differentiate per sales channel, do all products in the same range have the same price, or do the outer range items get different prices and what about the price in relation to the price of your main competitors? A useful tool is to compare against previous years and have your finger on the pulse of major trends. 

Next, once you have decided on a promotion plan, forecast and order accordingly to avoid issues with excess or shortage of stock. Finally, forecast your stock appropriately. Be ready for those busy Christmas sales and know your inventory should be reduced back to regular levels in a timely fashion after the post-holiday sales. 

4. Go mobile

The research is in. Customers are buying increasingly on their phones. For that reason you need to ensure that the entire shop, browse, check in, purchase and promotion experience is completely mobile-friendly. According to Forbes, mobile is becoming the “front door to the store” and moreover, more shoppers are set to visit a retailer's site using a mobile device than a desktop computer. This is a profound shift in consumer behavior and one you need to be mindful of to not lose out. Start by testing your website on a phone. Follow-up by pasting your URL into Google’s Mobile-Friendly Testing Tool.

Check Webmaster Tools to see if Google has alerted you to your site not being mobile-friendly and consider exploring Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP), an open-source website publishing technology designed to improve the mobile shopping experience. If that is not enough to get your moving, remember this shocking fact: according to a recent study, 53% of users say they will abandon a site if it takes longer than 3 seconds to load. Yes, 3 seconds! If you are not mobile-ready, you will miss out. 

  1. Offer delivery options

In the run up to Christmas, you need to ensure that you have delivery options that are on point because the data points to the fact that shipping options influence retail customer experience. The key is to ensure you have varying shipping options, depending on customer need. Typically these are free shipping, express paid shipping and local pickup shipping. 

Each will each lead to different outcomes and expectations with customers. Be as flexible as possible and give customers the message that you offer these options to accommodate their needs whatever they may be. In addition, as an added service, you might want to think of how best to offer next day delivery, accommodate late buyers, and offer pickup at another store (‘click and collect’) if you can.

6. Get in the season

If you want your customers to spend like it’s the holiday season, then it is time for your store, website and social media to get in the season too. Most retailers spend a great deal to appeal to customers, yours should be no different. Whatever Christmas look you are going for - your theme should be consistent. So think through decorations, signage and any renovations early to ensure you are ready.  Retails will often spend significantly to decorate given the potential upside. 

  1. Avoid staffing challenges and take a close look at holiday hours

You will no doubt need more hands on deck during the holiday season. You need to prepare for that. According to Snagajob, 70% of hiring managers will be adding hourly workers for the holiday season and they’ll be adding 28% more seasonal employees than before. According to SmallBusiness Trends, that means if you want to ensure you are staffed well, then tap into social network, try a temporary agency, and consider hiring virtual customer service reps if that’s helpful. Be sure the hiring and training is done early enough to be ready for those early shoppers too. 

Finally, give some thought to holiday hours. Most retailers extend opening hours to meet consumer demand. Be sure you communicate these times and dates with your customers well in advance so that they are aware of this added benefit. Also, don’t forget about the post-holiday season which can be just as busy and require similar staffing. According to Google, one of the three biggest days for shopping-related online searches is the day after Christmas so any of those gift cards or cash as a gift might just be spent in your store and you want to be ready. 

Jessica Brown
Jessica is a globally renowned writer specializing in International Relations, Economics and Political Affairs. A graduate from Brown and Cambridge Universities she now focuses on helping small to medium businesses grow their bottom line.
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