Learn the lessons we've gathered through throughout 2014, the predictions we've developed from those lessons and the ways you can prepare for the busiest sales season of the year.

2014 Ecommerce Predictions

1. Traffic and sales from mobile devices will increase, particularly tablets

Volusion merchants experienced a 23% gain in mobile sales during the second quarter of 2014, with growth expected to continue into the holiday selling season. In terms of device-specific habits, the majority of smartphone users are browsing and researching products, whereas tablet users have longer times on page and higher conversion rates in terms of making a purchase.

For SMB merchants to make the most of their mobile presence, they should:

  • Begin by ensuring that their site is mobile optimized, allowing shoppers to easily browse products and categories while enhancing the mobile checkout experience as much as possible.
  • Create consistency between all channels, including their desktop and mobile sites to ensure integrated brand messaging. Furthermore, discounts and promotions should be consistent across devices so that multi-device shoppers are able to redeem specific discounts when and where they are ready to buy.
  • Leverage mobile email campaigns to maximize their mobile traffic and sales. As consumers increasingly rely on their mobile devices to check email, sending targeted, product-specific discounts to shoppers’ inboxes is a proven way to quickly and easily increase mobile conversions.

2. Smaller retailers will face heightened challenges in competing with big-box retailers

The National Retail Foundation projects a 9-12% growth in online holiday sales over 2013, whereas eMarketer predicts a 15.5% increase. While this number is indeed impressive, the majority of this growth will stem from existing market leaders, like Amazon and other top-tier retailers. Despite this continued shift to larger brands, smaller online businesses still have a large opportunity to experience increased sales during this busy selling season.

For SMB merchants to better compete online against big-box retailers, they should:

  • Tap into existing customers now by marketing to them via email and encouraging the usage of loyalty programs – repeat customers are the easiest to convert, so placing one’s small business in their consideration set earlier than later will help prevent shoppers from flocking to Amazon.
  • Leverage current customers to recruit new customers. Extending sharable coupons or simply encouraging and incentivizing existing customers to tell their friends about one’s business is a cost-effective method to attracting first-time shoppers to a small business website.
  • Work to increase average order value and number of items per order to remain profitable. The primary reason online shoppers use Amazon and other large websites is for cost savings, meaning that if a small retailer is forced to reduce prices or offer other promotions like free shipping, they need to increase the average amount of sales per customer to stay in the black. To do so, smaller merchants are encouraged to offer personalized product recommendations, bundle related products, and find other upselling opportunities.
  • Encourage account registration for shoppers visiting their site. This is helpful for two reasons: 1) it allows merchants to further market to these customers, and 2) allows shoppers with accounts to save cart items that were previously abandoned, as Adobe reports that 55% of shoppers want to save their cart for later purchase.

3. A shortened selling season leads to more frantic shoppers, heightens expectations for customer service

The 2014 holiday season is shorter than most years, with only 26 days existing between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. This means that shoppers will have a tighter window to find deals and will be crunched to make last-minute gift purchases. To provide a stellar customer experience to hurried customers, it is paramount that customer service channels are adequately staffed and shipping deadlines are strategically planned.

For SMB merchants to best serve customers during a shortened selling season, they should:

  • Consider making earlier shipping deadlines for the Christmas holiday and ensure that shipping deadlines are clearly and proactively communicated on-site and in transactional customer communications. In 2013, Internet Retailer reports that 32% of North America’s 25 largest retailers were unable to deliver orders on time, leading to a negative customer experience.
  • Provide customers with the option for expedited shipping, including overnight and 2-day. Doing so will help convert last-minute shoppers into paying customers instead of being forced to turn them away. When offering expedited shipping options, merchants should clearly display the additional cost of shipping to prevent sticker shock and abandoned carts at checkout.
  • Expect and prepare for an increased number of customer service inquiries, particularly during busy selling days like Black Friday and Cyber Monday. To help deflect an influx of customer contacts, merchants are advised to proactively provide information on their websites and email communications, namely in the form of FAQs, detailed return policies, and order tracking information. Additionally, business owners should prominently display their contact information, including phone, email, and live chat, directly on their ecommerce sites.
  • Staff accordingly for extended hours. Increased online shopping volume doesn’t lend itself to standard business hours, meaning merchants should take measures to be available more often during the holiday season. To help facilitate customer communication, hours for live chat and phone support should be clearly displayed, and a response time for email correspondence should also be detailed.

4. Not only will Black Friday and Cyber Monday again break records, they will be lengthened and extended

In 2013, Black Friday and Cyber Monday shattered previous records, with comScore reporting sales of $1.2B and $1.7B, respectively. As shoppers continue to skip the malls to enjoy the convenience and deep discounts offered immediately after Thanksgiving, expect to see even higher sales on these major shopping “holidays” in 2014. More importantly, retailers will be pressured to extend and lengthen these selling days, offering Black Friday style discounts throughout the entire week of Thanksgiving, and particularly on Thanksgiving Day. Cyber Monday will experience a similar extension, with several online retailers extending those discounts further into the week following Thanksgiving, as an additional effort to maximize an already shortened holiday selling season.

For SMB merchants to capitalize on consumer interest in the days before, during, and after Black Friday/Cyber Monday, they should:

  • Begin Black Friday promotions during the week of Thanksgiving and extend Cyber Monday promotions. This approach will enable smaller online retailers to compete with larger brands and align discounts with consumer expectations. Thanksgiving Day will be of particular importance during the 2014 holiday season, so SMB retailers should craft specific deals that are catered to this holiday.
  • Provide “early Black Friday exclusives” to existing customers. Smaller retailers are advised to leverage their existing customer base by marketing to them via email and social media early, inviting them to shop using Black Friday discounts earlier during Thanksgiving week.
  • Offer flash deals on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. To encourage impulse purchases, retailers should use email and social media communications to share flash deals, such as “40% off from 2-4pm” or “Free Shipping until midnight.” This tactic will create a heightened sense of urgency on these already popular selling days, helping entice shoppers to buy as opposed to comparing prices with other websites.

5. Ecommerce growth and sales are no longer a given, must now be earned through data analysis and segmentation

In previous years, increased sales for SMB merchants during the holidays were expected based purely on seasonality, but as competition increases, retailers will be required to act strategically to experience sales growth during the 2014 season. Part of the challenge in achieving additional growth across the industry is due to sheer volume – as sales figures continue to climb, achieving double-digit gains becomes increasingly difficult year over year. Because of this development, online sellers will need to more heavily rely on data analysis, segmentation, and personalization tactics to achieve similar gains as previous years.

For SMB merchants to better optimize, qualify, and segment audiences to achieve larger holiday sales growth, they should:

  • Focus on sales and marketing channels that are most effective. Retailers should look at performance data throughout the year to identify which landing pages, paid search campaigns, etc. are top performers. Once identified, those channels should be further optimized to correspond with the holiday season, while bottom-performing campaigns should be cut or allocated less budget. Focusing on sales and marketing efforts that are proven effective will help maximize ROI and increase conversions as opposed to spreading tactics evenly across the board.
  • Segment customer lists based on purchase behavior. Online retailers are advised to analyze customer data on previous purchases to create marketing campaigns that are personalized to specific customer groups. For example, segmenting customers based on specific product categories allows merchants to send customized emails featuring items from that product category – focusing on products catered to customers’ known interests will improve sales conversions from those efforts.
  • Optimize webpages to reduce bounces and increase time on page. Using Google Analytics, retailers are able to identify trends in site behavior, namely to see where drop-offs take place on their ecommerce site. Once specific points of site abandonment are known, site owners can then make design and content adjustments to better navigate website visitors throughout the purchase path.

6. Security becomes a heightened point of concern for wary online shoppers

With increasing media coverage surrounding internet security incidents, including the Target data breach, Heartbleed case, and recent news of Russian hackers stealing over a billion passwords, shoppers are much more aware of online security issues and will require additional reassurance to complete a purchase.

For SMB merchants to instill a sense of security and confidence with online shoppers, they should:

  • Prominently display security seals on their ecommerce site. Online business owners are highly advised to ensure their security seals, namely for their SSL certificate, are easily visible across their website. One ideal placement for these seals is within the website header or footer, so that it can be seen across every page on the site, including key conversion points, like product and checkout pages.
  • Showcase real-time contact information across their site. Reminding shoppers that another human is readily available to provide assistance and support is a subtle, yet effective method to provide a sense of confidence. Shoppers are often concerned about the credibility of smaller ecommerce sites, so demonstrating the availability of real-time customer support will help boost confidence and lessen concerns.
  • Create a highly professional presence via website design. As 68% of US online shoppers agree that they will distrust a site with an unprofessional appearance, SMB retailers are strongly encouraged to invest heavily in website design to ensure a clean, polished aesthetic. Retailers are also advised to thoroughly review their website content to ensure there are no spelling or grammar errors, as the smallest mistakes have an impact on overall brand integrity.