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November 12, 2014

Holiday Marketing Strategies for Small Businesses

If you own a small business, your 2014 holiday marketing strategies should already be in place — and your holiday marketing campaign should already be underway. After all, retailers record almost 20 percent of their annual sales over the holidays, per the National Retail Federation (NRF). From that perspective, the holiday shopping season probably comes and goes far too quickly, although the big retailers are doing everything in their power to lengthen it.

Last year, for example, Kmart aired a Christmas-themed ad in early September, and Wal-Mart kicked off its 2013 holiday deals on Nov. 1. This year, Macy’s had already decked its Herald Square (New York) location in boughs of holly and other Christmas touches by mid-September — and even that late-summer move may not have beaten Kmart or Toys ‘R’ Us to the holiday punch.

It’s easy to think such premature promotions would only serve to annoy the shopping public, but the evidence strongly suggests otherwise. Not only are consumers accustomed to early holiday advertising, many of them welcome it. More relevantly, 40 percent of consumers began shopping for the 2014 holidays by October, according to the NRF. If those shoppers weren’t thinking of you when they started browsing, you could miss your revenue targets for the year (or, at a minimum, lose sales).

Of course, it’s hard for small retailers to compete head-to-head with deep-pocketed, nationally-known retailers, especially over an extended period. You need to focus your efforts — and your budget — on those opportunities that offer the greatest and/or most dependable payoffs for your specific situation. If that means kicking off your holiday campaign closer to Thanksgiving Day than Labor Day, so be it.

A later launch doesn’t necessarily mean you’re starting from behind, at least against like-sized competitors. In a November 2013 survey of small businesses by Constant Contact, 28 percent of respondents said they didn’t work on specific holiday business plans in advance. Plus, while online shoppers are by no means a single, monolithic entity that behaves in a uniform, consistent way, they do tend to share several desires: They all want the lowest prices, the best deals, and the most customer-friendly services and policies, and they want to get all of that from familiar, reliable retailers.

If you’ve been in business for a while, you already have a core audience of consumers who trust you to deliver on your promises. There’s also a good chance you built or augmented that base in part through your previous holiday efforts — the Constant Contact survey found that 52 percent of small business respondents said they’d converted new customers acquired during the holidays into loyal, repeat shoppers.

Put your prior experience to good use by implementing and amplifying your successful customer acquisition tactics for the 2014 holiday season. Whether it was a broad or targeted e-mail campaign, a particular promotional offer, or something else altogether, hone and optimize the methods that paid off in the past.

Your holiday plans can’t stop there, though. The online retail industry continues to evolve, and shopping behavior keeps changing with it. Ideally, you’ve already developed a mobile strategy, including a responsive design website that allows prospective customers to browse through your online offerings via Smartphones and tablets.

After all, according to an Internet Retailer Mobile 500 study, 75 percent of Internet shoppers use their mobile devices at some point while shopping these days, and 23 percent of all online sales in the U.S. this year will take place on those devices. Your bottom line can only benefit from catering to such a substantial portion of retail consumers.

If you do have mobile capabilities, you’ll want to incorporate mobile-friendly tactics into your holiday plans. Use text alerts to announce daily deals or even promotions of a more limited nature — discounts on purchases made between noon and 6 p.m., for instance, or special savings for the first 50 customers to take a specific action. Unless you’re targeting only your most loyal customers, share your offers across Facebook, Twitter, and anywhere else you have a social media presence. Make sure they’re easy to understand, easy to redeem — and easy to pass along to others.

Offering prospective customers easy access to savings as part of a convenient shopping experience can help enhance your reputation and expand your audience. To further support those goals, you can also institute (or at least experiment with) a variety of customer-friendly policies and procedures as part of your marketing strategy over the holidays.

If it’s not yet a part of your year-round marketing strategy, try offering free shipping during the holiday season. You might think that absorbing delivery fees will cause irreparable damage to your bottom line, but free shipping generates its own rewards. They’re twice as effective in closing sales as percent-discount offers, and 80 percent of shoppers are more likely to purchase an item if they know it’ll ship for free. Besides, online consumers practically demand free shipping these days; shipping costs are the leading cause of abandoned carts.

If, after a thorough cost-benefit analysis, you decide you can’t afford to deliver every purchase for free, you can test a conditional free-shipping offer, e.g., on all orders of at least $50, or on purchases of certain items. You can also check out loyalty programs, such as, that remove shipping fees from your customers’ purchases as well as your own bottom line.

A similar customer-friendly approach could help you gain an advantage on the vast majority of online retailers, big and small. An Internet Retailer Top 500 survey from January 2014 showed that only 49 of those retailers — 9.8 percent — offered free return shipping. Another 39 retailers said they were considering such a policy this year, which would bring the total to 88, or 17.6 percent.

If more than 80 percent of the top retail websites (as ranked by annual sales) irritate shoppers by refusing to cover return shipping charges on unsatisfactory purchases, imagine how many of the smaller websites do the same. Then imagine the market share you could gain by giving online shoppers what they want, either on a permanent basis or as a holiday promotion.

Of course, return rates usually spike on end-of-year purchases, but so do purchase rates. As with free shipping, you could hedge potential losses by covering return shipping under certain conditions (e.g., on certain items or up to a certain amount) or by steering your customers toward outside programs that offer savings on return shipping, like Return Saver.

Your holiday strategy should reflect your business’s unique situation — its product offerings, marketing strengths and weaknesses, competitive standing, available budget, and any number of other factors. Nevertheless, there are a variety of tactics, including a focus on mobile marketing and customer-friendly shipping and return shipping policies, that can help bolster your campaign, please prospective shoppers, and expand your audience, both over the holidays and into the New Year.


Tom Caporaso is the CEO of Clarus Marketing Group, which builds and customizes subscription programs, including, Return Saver, Travel Plus and others. Tom has more than two decades of direct marketing experience, specializing in continuity, subscription and custom loyalty programs. He’s held senior management roles in e-commerce, subscription programs, site optimization, SEM and SEO, product, marketing, sales, and client services.