THERE are less than 90 days until Christmas, and for most business owners the clock is ticking. With up to one-third of all retail trade occurring in the holiday period, it is essential that businesses start working early to primp their stores, stock up on essential products and set sales targets.
But while the Christmas period usually ushers in a period of extravagant spending, this year's holiday trading season will offer one crucial difference – customers are still frugal and looking for a bargain. And experts say you need to get prepared – fast.
"A lot of thought of planning goes into Christmas," JB Hi-Fi chief executive Terry Smart says.
"It started for us a few months ago, and is definitely in full swing. We are now fully preparing for the Christmas season."
Retail Doctor chief executive Brian Walker describes the holiday season as the "Grand Final" for retailers.
"It's when you'll get the majority of your traffic, either online or offline, and you have to be at your best when marketing to your customers."
"Everything should be gearing up for that week or 10 days before Christmas. You should have daily sales targets, or even half-day targets. Think about performance reviews, incentives and bonuses for staff who exceed targets, and so on. Everything to maximise your sales."
Here are 10 areas you should focus on in the lead-up to December.
Given the high traffic levels during Christmas, there's no better time to convince customers to come back into your store or website.
Walker says businesses should offer at least some small voucher or token with every purchase, enticing them to come back and redeem that offer in the New Year. It could be a discount, a buy-one-get-one-free deal or any type of loyalty offer – the point is to leverage the popularity you will only receive at Christmas.
"You have to think about your post-Christmas strategy, because you'll never get a better opportunity to invite people back into your business. It could be some sort of loyalty offer, or redemption voucher, or something like that."
The services sector may not be able to offer the same types of discounts as retail stores, but the Christmas period still provides plenty of opportunities for business-to-business deals.
Whether you're in consulting, finance or even ICT, using Christmas to make contact with potential clients is a great opportunity to gain new business. Why not send out an email to prospective clients offering to help them get their business on track in the New Year?
Whether it's getting finances in order, or helping review the business plan, stressed-out business owners are looking to recover from the chaotic Christmas period and you can help them out. Throwing in a sweetener, such as a first-hour-free deal, could be a good way to get involved.
Sales expert Sue Barrett says businesses need to get in touch with their clients or prospective customers and offer them one product or service they believe will be of benefit.
"You should make sure whatever you're doing is focused. Don't offer 50 million things, you want to keep them engaged with whatever you're offering. Remember that Christmas is a time of reflection, and they'll often be thinking about the business and what they can do."
"Many companies are thinking about training, and getting themselves organised for January and February. Many are wanting to reorganise themselves before the New Year, so I would focus on what these company's priorities are, and then target those."
Keeping a good balance of staff during the Christmas period is crucial. Too many and you'll end up negating any benefit from extra sales, but too few and you won't be able to keep up with a rush. JB H-Fi's Terry Smart says start preparing now, and get your rosters in order to determine who can and can't work on certain days.
"Very shortly our stores will be getting their rosters for the Christmas period. We need to ensure they'll be covering peak periods, and just as importantly, ensure they wind down over Christmas and have staff to do the re-stocking and so on."
"You need to get your staff right, you can never have enough staff during Christmas. But what you need to do is figure out how to be as productive as you possibly can, and get just the right amount of staff in the stores."
You'll also need to be prepared to adjust your roster along the way and have back-up staff available for when others may call in sick. Have those prepared now, so you aren't wasting time micro-managing during the busiest period of the year.
Shoppers often buy on first impression – if they don't like the look of your store, they won't enter. Paul Marshall, managing director of Lasoo.com.au, says you need to do all you can to make sure your physical and online stores look attractive and enticing to customers.
"The key issue is to be visible. Adjust your sites, put colour on them and so on, related to Christmas. Add things that make the site and stores look attractive."
Walker agrees, saying businesses should be changing decorations both in-store and online in order to give the impression your business is up-to-date and aware of the holiday season. Doing nothing makes your business look irrelevant.
"This should be part of your overall Christmas campaign. If you have shop windows you should be trying to change those up every day, and so on, just to make things interesting."
If you haven't been already working towards your Christmas SEO campaigns, then now is the time to get started. Reseo chief executive Chris Thomas says you should be updating your keywords to include Christmas-related phrases.
"If you haven't done so already, set up a Google AdWords campaign. If you haven't been doing general SEO work before this, you're probably not going to make it on time. But there are still things you can do around keywords and link building."
Thomas also recommends product pages with as much information as possible. With Google search for as much relevant text as possible, it counts to have "Christmas" and other related words in appropriate places on product pages to improve your rankings.
But rather than just wait until the holiday season to get started, Thomas says you should be thinking of Christmas-related SEO all year long. Instead of waiting, he recommends updating your keywords with Christmas-related words all year.
This means businesses will be prepared for Christmas searches even in the September-October period, and their pages will be given more time to rise to the top.
"We have clients that are in the space of cake-making, and they have year-round search terms relating to Christmas. That's the sort of planning that should go into your SEO campaign all year round."
There is no reason why you should run out of stock during the holiday season, especially for your most popular products. These experts say you need to quickly identify what your most popular products are likely to be, and stock up quickly.
Walker says businesses need to start working with suppliers immediately. Establish good relationships and see how you can leverage them to get stock when you need it most.
"You need to start working now to make sure you have all of your product sorted out, and all of your supply chains in order. Talk to your manufacturers and know who you're going to be buying stock from."
Smart says getting supply correct is "hugely important", as it impacts on how you can market and advertise.
"Supply ties all into your merchandising and advertising techniques. You need to work out what you want to display, how you want to show off your impulse items, working out all the other product displays and so on."
"Working out your supply is how you make the most of the traffic during this heavily busy Christmas period."
Paul Marshall says you should also involve the customer in the ordering process. If you have an online store, start updating each item with stock availability information and ensure each customer has a good idea of when they can expect delivery.
"Even if you don't have something in stock, at least tell them when it will be in stock. Otherwise they'll just go somewhere else."
With the Australian retail market now plagued with rampant discounting, pricing has become a crucial topic of conversation for small businesses. Smart warns businesses to set their pricing correctly, otherwise you will miss out on profit if you prices are too low.
"We've always been a discounter, and that's what people know JB for. But I think we are able to back that up by providing good value, especially compared to other retailers. That has been our approach for a long time, and we have to prove that to the customers."
If you're using print or other types of advertising, now is the time to start designing your campaigns. You want to get it in early and have those advertisements ready to go, especially if you want a leg-up on the competition.
Marshall says businesses need to start designing their advertisements and catalogues now. But he also says these will be useless if the correct products aren't displayed in such a way as to entice shoppers.
"Most of the catalogues our customers send out are all about visibility. You should know what the key spending trends are going into Christmas. Department stores already know what the hottest toys are, and you should be doing the same with other products."
"Look at what people are buying and then put those on the front of your catalogues. It's the old 80/20 rule, and if you're not searching for what you should be advertising, they should be doing it soon."
With discounting so rampant among retailers, Marshall says it's imperative for businesses to justify their prices.
"Businesses need to start offering more than their normal products. For Christmas last year we offered a lot of gift guides, so people could search for products within a certain price range and so on."
"People love that sort of thing because it offers assistance and doesn't just leave them along to buy. I would say to businesses to start adjusting their sites to do those sorts of things."
Walker says business can't just rely on low prices for foot traffic. Instead, he says SMEs should start offering something alongside just the simple product purchase that increases the value of the transaction.
"You have to think about what type of value you're offering. Gift wrapping is a standout example of how many businesses do this. You need to have people come back for more because you are offering more than everyone else."
Jason Kang, vice president of marketing and international for US-based retailer Zazzle, told SmartCompany earlier this year that online businesses need to develop a marketing plan straight away.
"Also think about your marketing and so on, what you're going to do to the site. You might want to introduce new features... like on Zazzle, this wasn't specifically for Christmas, but we introduced a way for users to share their creations on Facebook or Twitter."
There may be plenty of demand on Australian shores, but Jim Stewart of Stewart Media says SMEs should never stop thinking about exporting. He notes shoppers in the northern hemisphere are spending more time indoors, meaning they are more likely to buy products online.
"Right now is the biggest time of the year for online sales up north, because everyone goes inside and spends more time there. If you're selling to international markets as well, design AdWords and so on around what you're selling."
"The same applies with Facebook, all social networking, and so on. Start tailoring to overseas, because if you're not selling into those markets, now is a great time to start."
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