Holiday Season Readiness Guide for Online Retailers

Black Friday is four months (and some change) away and retailers who have not yet turned their attention to peak spending season should do so now.


While it is not the time for major redesigns or replatforming, there is ample time to shore up security, optimize forms, consider alternative payment methods, cater to customers' expectations and set up shipping options.

Website Magazine enlisted the help of top industry insiders to get their thoughts on holiday prep. We've included those full Q&As below to serve as a resource over the coming months.

What are some security lessons of the 2016 holiday season that retailers should learn from in 2017?

Robert Hamilton, Imperva Incapsula: They’re more vulnerable than they may think, even large e-commerce sites. Unpatched Web servers, lack of compliance with PCI-DSS (payment card data security standards), lack of intrusion prevention and easy email spoofing will likely continue to be the leading causes of credit card theft during this year’s shopping season.


Do you think consumers will be more or less cautious about the retailers they do business with this holiday season? Why?

Hamilton, Imperva Incapsula: It’s tough for consumers to assess the likelihood that they will suffer credit card or identity theft by going to a particular website. Many consumers also understand that if fraud is caught relatively quickly, they will not suffer any more than the inconvenience of having to replace a “stolen” credit card. Consumers know there is some risk of theft or fraud with online shopping as with other types of shopping activity, but it’s not risky enough for them to curb their appetite for the convenience of online shopping, especially when the credit card companies and merchants bear most of the financial consequences of fraud.


Are there any tools you would recommend using to bolster security before the holidays?

Hamilton, Imperva Incapsula: There are essential tools that retailers should invest in to help reduce the likelihood of fraud. First, the website or e-commerce platform should be scanned for unpatched systems that allow hackers easy entry into a site. Second, intrusion prevention systems and a Web application firewall should be utilized to minimize the likelihood that a hacker can exploit a vulnerable website. Third, DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack prevention should be utilized to decrease the likelihood of an attack for ransom during the busy shopping season.  


What are some security threats retailers face this holiday season?

Hamilton, Imperva Incapsula: Credit card theft will continue to be a major concern while site spoofing and DDoS attacks continue to set new records.


Are these threats unavoidable? If not, what can retailers do to minimize them before the holidays start?

Hamilton, Imperva Incapsula: While it’s tough to completely eliminate a security threat, they are not unavoidable if the right steps are taken. Retailers should at a minimum do four things: First, check their systems for unpatched or out of date software. Second, make sure SPF records are in place to decrease the risk of an email spoofing attack on their customers. Third, invest in intrusion prevention and web application firewall systems or cloud services to decrease the likelihood of an intruder. Finally, invest in a DDoS mitigation service to ensure attackers can’t bring an e-commerce site down.


Is the chip technology being used at brick-and-mortar retailers really increasing online security threats?

Hamilton, Imperva Incapsula: Chip technology is targeted at making it more difficult to pursue point-of-sale fraud so it’s natural to assume that criminals will seek other areas to exploit. Online fraud continues to be a vulnerable area.


Are there ways retailers can “test” their security before the holidays?

Hamilton, Imperva Incapsula: Yes, now is the time to test—well before the holiday shopping deluge. There are do-it-yourself open source penetration testing or “pen testing” tools on the market that can be used to find vulnerabilities. There are also security firms that specialize at uncovering and then fixing vulnerabilities.


How can retailers help assure customers their data will be secure with them?

Hamilton, Imperva Incapsula: There’s an abundance of security seals that retailers routinely place on their sites that attest to best practices for security and privacy. While the presence of an industry accepted seal or certification may be an indication that the e-commerce site is committed to protecting customers data, it’s no guarantee that the site is not vulnerable to a determined hacker.


At this point of the year, are there any changes you DO NOT recommend making?

Hamilton, Imperva Incapsula: Don’t wait until the last minute!

What role do forms play in shopping cart conversions?

Steve Hartert, JotForm: Forms have an incredible impact on shopping cart conversions. If a form is too complicated, or is too long, customers will abandon it in frustration. The form needs to be created with one priority - making the shopping experience better and encourage users to finish the purchase. 

Additionally, before the form is launched, it needs to be tested in a variety of environments to ensure it displays and functions correctly between desktop browsers and various mobile devices. Customers expect a smooth, easy process from selection to purchase. Anything that deviates from this will push them to shop elsewhere.


What are some common mistakes retailers making when it comes to designing checkout page forms?

Hartert, JotForm: Too many companies want the form to fulfill many functions. Not only do they want to use it to sell products, they also want to use it as a marketing research tool, so the form is unnecessarily packed with unrelated fields.


To increase conversion rates, smart companies keep their forms as short as possible. We’ve researched our users and we learned that when a form had fewer than five fields, nearly 20 percent of their customers made it to checkout. If more fields are included, conversions steadily decreased. In fact, only 9 percent of customers completed their purchase when forms are longer than 50 fields.

Furthermore, companies also ignore testing a form. It’s good practice to have the form reviewed and tested to ensure it functions as designed and that it’s easy for customers to navigate it, fill it with products and complete the payment and shipping information.


To increase conversions this holiday season, what are some steps that retailers can take now to test or tweak their forms?

Hartert, JotForm: Companies should avoid packing forms with needless fields. As mentioned, eliminating unnecessary fields and designing a form with minimal fields will likely increase sales. Then test the form to ensure it customers can use it easily, and that no matter what device the customer is using, it the experience is identical. If customers find it difficult to navigate, can’t read it due to poor color combinations, or have trouble inputting their shipping and payment information, that means the form needs to be redesigned.


Anything else?

Hartert, JotForm: Targeting desktop users may be more profitable than reaching out to mobile customers. According to JotForm’s research, shoppers using mobile devices are about 40 percent less likely to complete a transaction than on desktops. This disparity might be explained by customer behavior, such as mobile users are more prone to distractions or differences in the user-friendliness of mobile and desktop interfaces.


What are some of the lessons from the 2016 holiday season that retailers should learn from for 2017?

Michael Griffiths, Pitney Bowes: If the 2016 holiday season was any indication, retailers will continue to see the rise in mobile and online transactions. This presents a completely new ball game for retailers, particularly for those that have traditionally relied on peak shopping holidays, like Black Friday to boost sales. Seamless and convenient interactions have become the new norm for customer experience. This holiday season, we expect that the key success differentiator will lie in retailers’ ability to adapt and be nimble in the way they interact with their customers to ensure these heightened expectations are met.

Furthermore, customers will expect seamless interactions with retailers, regardless of the channel – be it physical interactions within brick and mortar stores or online interactions across websites and mobile devices. This includes the way in which product data is used to inform recommendations and preferences. Similar to the in-store experience of engaging with a store clerk as a resource, enhancing website and mobile capabilities to boost personalization and empowering customers to feel confident in their purchases will also reduce high return rates, as seen in 2016. Most notably for retailers, the growth of global e-commerce has opened up opportunities for cross-border shopping capabilities. This has led peak sales (i.e., during the holiday season) to take place around the globe. Ensuring seamless global capabilities across shipping and transactions, as well as customizing user-friendly sites relevant for each region will enable retailers to maximize success this holiday season.


What are some top customer expectations that retailers should be aware of when prepping for the 2017 Holiday season?

Griffiths, Pitney Bowes: Customers this season will be expecting expedited convenience which is dependent on availability, speed, and cost. The proliferation of two-day free, same-day free or free delivery within just a couple of hours highlights this. The second aspect is seamless consumer experience inside the e-commerce world; simplicity and personalization for the consumer is very important. They want to be able to integrate their devices and shopping preferences with ease, while feeling like the offers and opportunities are relevant to their preferences. Integration and seamless transactions between mobile and Web experiences will be very important for the 2017 holiday season. Consumers still want to shop and buy brands that they love and the experience will be the true differentiator.


In terms of shipping, what improvements do retailers still have time to make to ensure there are no holiday hiccups?

Griffiths, Pitney Bowes: Often times, retailers see physical store footprints as a financial concern. But with retailers facing increased competition—particularly during the holiday season—they need to find ways to turn the store into something more as an enhanced way to get their products in the hands of their customers and enhance the overall customer experience. To maximize results, retailers should look for ways to unlock the potential in existing warehouse/inventory management systems and in-store analytics by optimizing their shipping processes for location, labor, and cost. By ensuring inventory is quickly sourced and most efficiently shipped to the right customer, either directly from stores, or from warehouses, retailers can gain a competitive advantage. At the heart of ensuring seamless holiday shipping processes is understanding where the inventory is and how best to ship it at all times. At the end of the day, data and business rules will dictate whether a retailer is able to deliver seamless processes. Ensuring data and inventory systems are in tip top shape and connected to the retailer's core systems will be critical.


Even with paid or slower delivery, what can retailers do to ensure transparency with customers about where their packages are, when they are being delivered etc.?

Griffiths, Pitney Bowes: The two main concerns consumers have when it comes to shipping is whether their shipments are on time and will arrive as promised. The use of API technology can facilitate a range of complex inventory, shipping processes and optimization models to augment systems for retailers. APIs can help to better manage costs, track deliveries and ensure an improved end-to-end customer experience.


Cloud-based solutions are also much faster to deploy than on-premise systems. Plus they’re easier to connect to existing systems and can be implemented in a phased approach with limited production impact. This can remove the business concerns of interrupting everyday business operations.  Finally, these solutions can be updated with new capabilities and value on regular basis – offering investment protection and ever increasing value.

Overall, with the help of complete, optimized shipping solutions and APIs, retailers can achieve fast fulfillment and shipping with the personalized touch today’s consumers have come to expect.


Any other thoughts you would like to include?

Griffiths, Pitney Bowes: In today’s rapidly changing retail landscape, consumers are shopping more than ever, especially online – both domestic and cross-border – which presents a lot of exciting new opportunities for retailers. In the last five years we have seen a $550-billion-dollar growth in e-commerce alone, and it is clear that the expectations of shoppers, ease of access, and power of choice they have will continue to be a significant and fast-growing trend. Moreover, shopping is becoming increasingly borderless, especially during holiday seasons. Consumers now have the opportunity to explore and shop across borders, in countries all over the globe, and it is clear that consumers are looking for this kind of access, with over 80 percent of consumers purchasing something across borders over the last year. Furthermore, one third of consumers are shopping across borders at least once a month. They no longer see cross border as a deterrent from shopping and they are spending that money every month. At the end of the day, global is simply how consumers show in today’s digital world.


What are some top customer expectations that retailers should be aware of when prepping for Holidays 2017?

Casandra Campbell, Shopify: Consumers continue to expect faster and faster shipping times while leaving holiday shopping to the last minute.


Knowing those expectations, what are some specific steps retailers still have time to take in order to meet them?

Campbell, Shopify: It's incredibly important to manage these expectations and be upfront about when shoppers can expect to receive their package. On the flip side, retailers also need to make sure they will be able to get products delivered in the time they promise. This means making sure you have enough products to meet swelling holiday demand, and if you handle your own fulfillment, making sure you're staffed up to get orders packed and shipped quickly.


Are there any apps (or types of apps) within Shopify’s App Store that you’d encourage retailers to consider now to prepare for Holidays 2017? Why?

Campbell, Shopify: There are quite a few Shopify apps that can help merchants sell more over the holidays. One in particular, Back in Stock (shown below), is great for handling out of stock products. Shoppers can sign up to be notified when the product they want is back in stock, meaning that instead of losing a customer completely, merchants can still get them back later. Gift Wizard is another great Shopify App for merchants selling products with a lot of variants or customization options. Using Gift Wizard, shoppers can purchase products as gifts while leaving the selection of color, size, etc to the person receiving the gift.


Are there any changes retailers should be cautious of making before the holidays begin? Why?

Campbell, Shopify: Right before the holidays is not a good time to do a major website redesign. Redesigns typically need a lot of testing to make sure nothing is broken and your conversion rate isn't negatively impacted. A lot of things can go wrong, like links breaking, images missing, or shoppers getting confused. The last thing you want to find out is that your snazzy new design cuts checkouts in half the week before Black Friday Cyber Monday.


What are some product page mistakes that retailers are making?

Campbell, Shopify: Low-quality product photos. Consumers want to see your product from as many angles as possible, so great product photography is incredibly important. Ideally, there is a mix of product shots and lifestyle photos showing how the product can be used. It’s very important that colors are accurately represented and details are visible to minimize returns.


How can they fix them before the holidays to increase conversions?

Campbell, Shopify: If your product photos need work, you don’t always need to do a new photoshoot. Sometimes getting them retouched can go a long way. Also look to suppliers or customers for photos you can use.

Now is also a great time to do an audit of your product and policy pages. Look for ways to improve your descriptions or add more details where needed to your listings, find ways to add social proof like product reviews or other user-generated content, and make sure your shipping and returns policies are easy to understand.


What website or marketing elements should retailers be testing and/or monitoring now to understand what works before the holiday season begins?

Campbell, Shopify: Go through your checkout flow and make sure it's well optimized. Better yet, watch a friend do it. Is it easy to navigate? Do shoppers have all the information they need?

Most shoppers won't actually check out the first time they visit your website so it's also important you have a system that will follow up with them. An abandoned checkout email series can bring people back who started to checkout but didn't finish. Visitors who didn't start to checkout can still be reached affordably by using Facebook Dynamic Product Ads, and you can always offer an incentive such as a discount to get first-time visitors to subscribe to your email list.  


Heading into the holiday season, what do retailers need to know about some top expectations consumers have for their online shopping experience?

Amanda Berger, RichRelevance: The most fundamental expectation is that every site will be fast, stable and fully functional. So, as online shopping continues to grow, retailers need to be able to handle the traffic headed their way this season without a hiccup.  Last year, traffic to our retail clients doubled and ran higher and longer globally starting in early November. The trends toward earlier and longer shopping periods will continue in 2017.


Stability is only the very baseline. Consumers also expect that inventory will be there; that it will be easy to find what they are looking for; that they will be connected to other products and information when they need it; and ultimately that the overall experience will be personally valuable whether they’re browsing for inspiration or just trying to get a gift card as quickly as possible.

One massive change in consumer expectation is that traditional personalization (“People who liked x also liked y”) is very much table stakes. Shoppers have become accustom to recommendations, and are ready for more.  The emerging trend, driven by companies in verticals like luxury that live and die on a premier customer experience, is to make sure that the shopper can tell that she is “known” – and that this particular experience is personalized to her. Consumers are starting to look for concierge-like online experience, and the race is on to stand out and win here.


What is a specific step(s) retailers can take now to set up their sites to meet those expectations?

Berger, RichRelevance: Retailers need to get as much information about their shoppers as they possibly can in the run up to the holidays. One way to do this is focus on loyalty programs to gather more information. 

Another tip is to make sure that all the data you have is available in one place – not locked in mobile, email, site, search, store silos. Use the time you have between now and the holidays to connect and match what shoppers are doing across channels so that you can offer a consistent, compelling experience – and fuel differentiation and growth.

Finally, to get more from data, retailers need to personalize content across the whole site (navigation, content, offers). We believe one of the most important things that retailers can focus on in the next 90 days is site search. We did a study last year that found search is extremely important or important to more than 80 percent of shoppers.  A search for “black shoe” can return a stiletto or a flip flop, and shoppers reward retailers who know the difference.

Excellent site search is even more important for mobile shoppers. Mobile real estate is precious, and personalization allows retailers to make the most of the entire experience. The bottom line? Retailers who get site search right this holiday will be rewarded.


What challenges do you predict retailers will face this holiday season?

Berger, RichRelevance: Retailers continue to face more and more competition from Amazon and Walmart. This is a huge challenge in terms of level of inventory, ease of use, and how to meet a shopper’s very personal needs.

Retailers need to differentiate themselves on experience so that things like price or Prime shipping is not always an issue. 

Once the holiday shopping season begins, what are some key metrics retailers should be collecting to identify changes that need to be made in 2018?

Of course, there are always the classic metrics like attributable sales and revenue per session – and these are important.  However, retailers should pay attention to other metrics such as product return rates, which are harder to track but essential when you’re talking about holiday gifting. 

From an omnichannel perspective, it is critical to track how online shopping behavior is changing store transactions. If a shopper finds a dress they like online and then goes to the store to buy it, the retailer needs to be able to effectively tie that together and understand the impact that online had on the sale.  

And finally, retailers absolutely have to resist the urge to look at data, patterns and trends from the last month or two. Instead, look at trends over years – holiday season to holiday season.


How can retailers use what they know about current customers to encourage sales from their existing audience (spending less on new acquisition)?

Berger, RichRelevance: Personalization allows retailers to serve customers over the long term, not simply sell to them right now.  Retailers can bring together everything they know about a customer to deliver a relevant experience that connects existing customers to the right products and services at the right time – whenever and however they shop with the brand. 

The key to success is to look at longer-term patterns from an omnichannel perspective – not simply try to tailor a suggestion based on what a shopper bought the last time they were online. There is a big move away from wisdom of the crowds and towards understanding the individual shopper in a particular context. Advances in big data and artificial intelligence/machine learning are making this possible by intelligently predicting customer needs and providing the most relevant experience in near real time.


Heading into the holiday season, what do retailers need to know about some top expectations consumers have for their online shopping experience?

Keith Nealon, Vyze: Every retailer will tell you that the customer experience is more important than ever. In fact, hundreds of vendors are promising to help retailers improve their customer experience with solutions like site artificial intelligence, free shipping engines and even Black Friday discounts. However, these enhancements do nothing to improve for the customer when it counts most – during checkout.

According to BI Intelligence, 3 out of 4 carts are abandoned at checkout, equaling $4 trillion dollars annually in lost sales. What’s even more eye-opening is that the payments step in the checkout process is the #1 culprit

A few retailers, like ICON Health & Fitness (,, are taking the right steps to improve the checkout experience by enhancing their payment options. Today nearly 75 percent of people who apply for credit online are rejected. Retailers, particularly those who sell more high-ticket items, know that a 75 percent failure rate is not sustainable if they want to engender long-term loyalty. Consumers want credit options that works – conveniently, efficiently and on their own terms.

Shoppers, particularly younger ones, are actively looking for new credit options. A majority (52 percent) of Gen Z shoppers and nearly 60 percent of Millennials are interested in ways beyond a traditional credit card to finance large purchases online. This number is likely even higher during the holiday months, as shopping lists are long so cash can be tight.

In boosting their online credit programs, retailers should recognize the growing expectation of omnichannel shopping experiences. Customers want the flexibility to apply for financing in any channel, including both online (43 percent) and in the store (44 percent). Retailers should also expect mobile to be a growing channel for credit. Millennials are much more likely to want a mobile application than older generations (16 percent versus 1 percent of shoppers over the age of 55).


What is a specific step(s) retailers can take now to set up their sites to meet those expectations?

Nealon, Vyze: Historically, there would be no way to significantly change online financing in 90 days. The good news is that technology today has dramatically un-complicated retail financing to allow retailers to enhance their financing offerings in just weeks.

Retailers who want to give their customers more purchasing power this holiday season (and eliminate credit decline rates) should consider offering a wide range of financing solutions – from revolving credit to lease-to-own to installment plans. Today, there are more financing options and financing providers than ever. With the growth of technology innovators in the space, the technology finally exists so that this range of financing solutions can be quickly implemented through a single integration to provide new options for holiday shoppers to pay conveniently and easily at checkout.

One important thing for retailers to keep in mind as they power up a financing program for the holidays is the application process. Research shows that consumers prioritize a simple application over anything else when applying for credit online, including competitive interest rates, so be sure it keeps it streamlined and convenient.


How can retailers use what they know about current customers to encourage sales from their existing audience (spending less on new acquisition)?

Nealon, Vyze: Financing is one of the best ways to drive loyalty and recurring sales.  We recently completed a survey with IPSOS Research that found 84 percent of shoppers who receive financing return at least once to finance an additional purchase. In contrast, 31 percent abandon their purchase completely when they are declined for credit.

Retailers can expect loyalty and increased repeat purchases when they give consumers access to more financing options that work for them.

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