Manufacturers, Retailers Testing it All for Christmas

" Now you listen to me, young lady! Even if we're *horribly mangled*, there'll be no sad faces on Christmas." The Grinch, "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas," Universal Pictures, 2000

We've wrapped up the last of our summer vacations, the kids are back at school and it's time for your first sighting of a pre-holiday ad or online/in-store Christmas decoration.

Don't worry, retailers have been thinking about it for you.

After last year's white-knuckle Christmas, retailers and manufacturers have been working feverishly to ensure you forget about how you scoured the web and stores looking for bargains.

Actually, they learned a lot from all of their efforts to convince you they had the stuff you wanted to buy, give, share. So, they're pulling out all of the stops and testing a bunch of new technologies to not just finish the season in a solid manner but even produce a little sales lift this year.

Retailers have set some aggressive goals for the season; and this year, they're focused on the bottom-line.

It all boils down to their ability to drive sales through strategically timed promotions and totally integrated marketing - web, social media, mobile device, in-store.

Leading the Charge

It appears that millennials will be the shopping influentials this year and will stimulate the buying influence in the age groups with the greatest amount of disposable money to spend this year - the Silents and Boomers.

Gift Givers - Millennials are the most optimistic about the upcoming Christmas season, and they will have a strong effect on the Silent and Boomer generations who have more money to spend this holiday season.

eCommerce sites like Amazon, eBay, Other World Computing and many others have been redesigning, testing, tweaking and retesting their websites since before you threw down your last New Year's eggnog.

Actually, it's a never-ending process of taking advantage of new programming techniques and ideas to see if sites can be quickly opened and that you can go to the page/pages you want even before you thought of what the gift was going to be and who it was for.

Test Flights - Every manufacturer and retailer is taking a long, hard look at their web site and pages to ensure they open quickly and that search engines can find them quickly. Less than optimum location, poorly designed, out-of-date site locations and broken links costs organizations hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. Everything has to work seamlessly, flawlessly this year.

Online and brick-and-mortar sites as well know that a second or two load, refresh time; ease of selection and speed of checkout can spell the difference between a sale and an abandoned shopping cart.

They've enhanced their SEO (search engine optimization) to adjust the site's contents for the optimum ranking in search engine results and have their SEM (search engine marketing plans in place to promote the site and improve page visibility ... just for you.

Research Tools

The online/store front retailers know you no longer have one device; you know, the stay-at-the-office, stay-at-home computer.

It would be nice (easy) if you did, but you're going out this year armed to the teeth and retailers are ready to deliver you their web pages in just the right format - notebook, tablet, smartphone.

Screen Size Matters - Large and small retailers have done a lot of work to ensure their web site and pages appear quickly and properly on all of your devices (notebooks, tablets, smartphones) to keep you interested and coming back for news, information, sales, special offers. Target, Wal-Mart, Kmart, Amazon and others want to ensure you don't leave "before your time."

There's just enough difference in the device screen you're using at the time that if their pages don't look good, they know you're so gone.

Life was so much easier for the web teams before you became totally connected!

Social Action

Channel people have learned the hard way that consumers have become very savvy on researching a product before they buy, so their "social media" folks are limbering up their fingers/thumbs to be everywhere you are this year.

Social Connection - The popularity and use of social media sites can change almost overnight; and since companies can't be certain which one you'll be using this holiday season, their social media folks will be on all of them ... just in case.

These folks are ready, willing and able to deliver information, news and deals this year on YouTube, Google+, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, MySpace, Pinterest, and 12 other social media services that will appear in the coming weeks.

Starting even before Thanksgiving (think Halloween), they'll be posting great ideas for you across all the services a couple of times a week.

A Matter of Trust - Friends and family have consistently had the greatest influence over what people buy; but today's web savvy consumer does a lot of online research before they make a purchase well beyond Facebook Likes. They study product, company and service reviews as well as user forums and reviews. They are well armed before they buy.

It would be great if you'd just take their word for it, but today's consumer spends hours researching the product category he/she is interested in to find just the right product from the right company/retailer with the right reputation and service/support at the best price.

Pattern Set

With money being tight the last couple of years, people have gotten into the habit of being real serious about how they spend their holiday budget.

The retail industry doesn't see that changing.

That's why the clerk said, "For the next 5 minutes only, 99% off!"

Since it's a level playing field today, nearly everyone will be offering price matching ... just show them the ad, price...BAM!!!

New POS - The smartphone has become a valuable tool and resource for today's shopper with people doing a lot more research, even when they are in the store checking product reviews/reports as well as the best pricing. Beyond just acting as showrooms for online sites, a growing number of retailers have implemented price matching policies for any product advertised at another store or online.

Retailers have gotten past the anguish of you bringing your smartphone into the store and showrooming (checking the physical product, searching for a better price and leaving to buy online).

It turns out that happens a little, but most people who have gone to the trouble of going to the store want the product Now and that's going to be even more important this holiday buying season when inventories everywhere are going to be closely monitored by management.

In fact, retailers see your smartphone being a real advantage for them this year.

According to a recent study, Bayfront found:

* 53 percent of respondents expect mobile transactions to account for a significant part of holiday revenue

* 38 percent believe mobile will drive renewed in-store interest that will lead to increased revenue

* mobile's momentum heading into the holiday season is in stark contrast to social media, which 84 percent of respondents see as having little or no impact on sales

The Grinch was a little disappointed when his answering machine said, "You have no messages."

eTailers and retailers alike are going to focus on your customer experience this year because well, they have a huge, rich treasure trove of Big Data, they're more efficient at mining that data and they are connecting all of their selling solutions to capture your attention ... and keep it.

In-Store Signage

The part of the customer experience that intrigues me is the growing and sophisticated use of digital signage, especially when it's tied to the retailer's app on your smartphone and some testing that's being done using in-screen cameras for facial recognition.

Really creative signage solution providers like OSM Solutions and Flixio are making it interesting, almost fun to look at the in-store signage--especially when it presents information that will interest you even before you know it yourself.

Eye to Eye - Economic digital signage systems and solutions are becoming valuable selling tools for manufacturers and retailers. Messages can be targeted just for you in the store and you can interactively find out more information about the products. It's not as advanced as in Minority Report yet, but the industry is working on it for you.

While you see the signs, what you don't see is all the creativity and hard work that is going on behind the scene to feature new products and special offers to spark your interest and give you added product benefit and value information.

Want to know more?

Some of the screens you'll see this year in both the large big box and small stores will be touchscreens that will help you learn more about a specific product, see user testimonials, really get you involved before you know it.

The signage solutions are becoming so affordable and so feature-rich that if you walk into a store this holiday and they have plain old paper promotion, I'd turn around and walk out ... they probably won't even be able to price match for you.

And as if that isn't enough, the moment you come into the store with your smartphone loaded with their app, they'll slip you some special coupons, special offers, hot news on items of interest just to you.

Now that's a customer experience!

Or, as the Grinch said, "I don't wanna make waves, but this *whole* Christmas season is..."

There's a certain group of folks who will leave their smartphone in their pocket and jam into the store to share in the claustrophobic fun.

Pack the Halls - Expect to see retailers inching their holiday specials and sales ahead of Thanksgiving this year to fill the stores with shoppers. Special events like Black Friday, Cyber Monday and all of the last-minute rush sales will be hot-n-heavy again this year as retailers focus on making their fourth quarter numbers big ... and black.

This year, you can expect to see retailers starting their Christmas promotions in early October to encourage you to brave the mobs, elbows, insults.

The Grinch looked around and said, "I tell you Max, I don't know why I ever leave this place."

A majority of U.S. adults (68 percent) expect to shop online for gifts this upcoming holiday season. Over 40 percent of U.S. adults who shop online evaluate their purchase with a local retailer before buying online, a practice known as showrooming. The survey results highlight the importance of creating a positive online shopping experience for shoppers who visit stores to try out the product then make the purchase online.

This year, more shoppers will use mobile phones and tablets to make purchases according to Harris Poll:

* 67 percent of the folks will stop using websites if the pages load slowly on their device 29 percent will buy in a store if they have website "issues"

* 22 percent will buy from a competitor's site if they have issues

* 20 percent will blow it off altogether

Positive experience counts, with nearly three quarters (70 percent) online shoppers saying they will buy from a store if they had a previous positive experience ... even if it was cheaper somewhere else.

But retailers aren't taking any chances because they'll make it worthwhile for the brave souls this year with flash sales, BOGO (buy-one-get-one free) and you name it to ensure you make everyone happy this Christmas.

Santa's Helpers - Online and omni-channel retailers will continue to offer periodic free shipping and overnight delivery for people who don't want to face the crowds, can't find just what they want in the store or put off their shopping until the very last minute.

But if you're like me, the thought of facing the crowds of "happy" shoppers isn't something you really want to do.

Order online through ecommerce and omni-channel stores and packages will magically appear at your doorstep.

You'll see a lot more free shipping this year; and, as you hold off until the absolute very last minute, stores are ready to ship overnight (might be a slight cost here).

Retailers up and down the street, in and out of the cloud, are going to use all the tools available to increase engagement, revenue and long-term relationships with you and all the other happy shoppers.

Seeing the anxious retailer faces and all of the searching exercises you'll begin shortly, the Grinch said, "The sleigh, the presents, they'll be destroyed, and I care!"

Author:.

G. A. "Andy" Marken President Marken Communications, Inc. Santa Clara, CA Andy has worked in front of and behind the TV camera and radio mike. Unlike most PR people he listens to and understands the consumer’s perspective on the actual use of products. He has written more than 100 articles in the business and trade press. During this time he has also addressed industry issues and technologies not as corporate wishlists but how they can be used by normal people. He has been a marketing an...

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