By Dale S. Laszig
Apart from buoyant crowds and festive displays, the holidays are serious business for merchants. A recent study by Womply found that small retailers pulled in 11 percent of total yearly sales between Thanksgiving and Christmas in 2017. Additional data from The 2018 BigCommerce Holiday Readiness Survey Report and Checklist, shows growing demand for advanced technologies among 1,000 retailers surveyed.
"As retail competition increases due to the growth of new channels and the ease of reaching customers around the world, many online retailers have started holiday planning earlier to make the most of the busiest, and most prosperous, time of the year," BigCommerce researchers wrote.
The Green Sheet asked payments industry leaders and third-party service providers for advice on how advanced technologies can help merchant level salespeople (MLSs) and their customers prepare for the hyper-competitive holiday season. Recommendations are organized into four essential elements of holiday planning: boost engagement, leverage big data, reinforce security and manage cash flow.
Effective planning begins with understanding how, when and where customers shop and what motivates them to buy, BigCommerce researchers noted. Customer relationship management (CRM) system reports and tools make these insights accessible in real time. Dimitri Akhrin, CEO of IRIS CRM, said. He further set for the following five examples of how CRM systems can streamline critical tasks:
Cory Capoccia, president at Womply, said CRMs can automate marketing campaigns ahead of the holidays, which frees merchants to focus on immediate priorities. "With a CRM in place, you're better prepared to communicate with customers, and get them to come back, in the event that inclement weather, inventory problems or other issues prevent you from delivering a great customer experience."
Last year's lessons are integral to holiday planning, noted BigCommerce analysts, who contend that "learning from your actions and formulating data-based insights is the only way to enter the next holiday season wiser and more prepared than the previous." Following are suggestions on how to leverage data-rich merchant portfolios and CRM systems. Capoccia said analytics deliver actionable advice to help merchants make informed decisions. "For example, if Black Friday was your best sales day in 2017, you might choose to open earlier this year to capture spillover traffic from doorbuster shoppers at Best Buy and Target," he said. "Without access to this data or an easy way to sort through it, business owners miss out on repeat business because they don't understand their customers."
Data-driven insights can help merchants audit their online reputations, a critical imperative in today's always-on, always-connected economy. Capoccia recommends combining artificial intelligence with human oversight for best results. CRMs can identify negative reviews and respond in real time; merchants might also ask their best customers to provide feedback, he stated. "In all cases, small merchants should be running a proactive reputation management program to engage with prospects and customers online," he said. "Online review sites are often the first touchpoint consumers have with a business; it's critical to maintain a positive online presence."
Madelyn Newman, director of product and customer marketing at CallRail, said, "Today's consumers are more mobile than ever and increasingly transact from smartphones. We pinpoint where phone calls originate, the web page a caller was visiting and what marketing resources are driving the call."
The ability to extract source data from a smartphone URL and alert agents about an incoming call facilitates meaningful discussions, Newman noted. Built-in reporting tools can identify the busiest times of a day or week. "If you're managing a call center and your Black Friday call volumes more than double year-over-year, you want to make sure you're armed with enough agents to handle those calls," she said.
BigCommerce researchers devoted a section of holiday planning to "technical site planning," counseling merchants to prepare networks and servers for increased transaction flows. Keep a clean house by maintaining clean websites, testing third-party integrations and using trusted payment methods, they advised. Security analysts recommend these additional precautions:
"Merchants that have an option from their acquirers to do point-to-point encryption (P2PE) should strongly look at implementing those options," said Mark Carl, CEO at ControlScan. "Encrypting card data at the point of interaction (POI) continues to be the most successful means of preventing a breach of card data itself."
BigCommerce researchers urge merchants to beef up inventories. "Place your orders now, so you're well stocked for the holiday rush," they wrote. "Also make sure that each of your warehouses is appropriately stocked, or that you have shipping and fulfillment rules in place to switch warehouses if a minimum threshold is hit." Cash flow management can challenge small business owners, Capoccia pointed out. Obstacles may include variable revenue patterns, inadequate accounts receivable programs and lack of forecasting tools that would help them be proactive and anticipate needs. Womply's optional cash management program links to a merchant's bank account to provide additional insights and tools to analyze banking transactions, expenses and key areas of focus, he said.
Darren Schulman, president of 6th Avenue Capital, said preplanning typically involves getting rid of old stock to make room for new inventory, hiring and training seasonal employees, updating websites and planning holiday marketing campaigns. "All that takes money," he said. "The time to talk about holiday planning is now, not next week." Merchant cash advances use tech-driven underwriting to provide fast access to working capital, which can be beneficial to business owners if they have a plan for the money, Schulman noted. This could mean buying a large amount of inventory at a quantity discount. "The only reason to take an advance is to make more money," he said. "You don't do it to pay old bills."
Schulman advised MLSs to partner with funders who respect their merchants and take the time to understand their needs. "No merchant wants to be defined only by numbers," he said. "How well do your funders listen to their needs and structure a deal that is right for their business?"
Executives interviewed in this article agree that holiday planning, like payments, is more of a continuous process than a once-and-done proposition. Plans that incorporate advanced technologies to manage time-consuming tasks and deliver timely insights can help merchants achieve revenue goals and deliver a great customer experience.
Dale S. Laszig, senior staff writer at The Green Sheet and managing director at DSL Direct LLC, is a payments industry journalist and content provider. She can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at @DSLdirect.
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