The 2015 Holiday eCommerce Guide

  •    Freelance journalist covering women, business, policy and social good.

There's no time like the holidays for growing your online business. Seasonal purchases can increase your site's exposure, help you build great relationships with customers, and account for as much as 30 percent of annual sales. According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), online sales are expected to increase by as much as 8% in 2015. This equates to as much as $105 billion in 2015.

Consumers still have the weight of the economy on their minds, so price, value and timing will all influence how, when, where and why people shop over the holiday season, says NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. Let’s take a look at what you can do to get the most of your online store for the holidays.

1. Start Early

Shoppers are as likely to shop for lights and reindeer in October as they are for pumpkins and hay, reports the NRF. About 40 percent of consumers start their holiday shopping before Halloween each year.

In 2014, shoppers started earlier than ever, thanks to an increase in pre-Thanksgiving discounts and an improved economy. Holiday spending kicked off in earnest on November 1, with 85 percent of shoppers expecting deals before Black Friday, reports RetailMeNot. Take advantage of the trend this year by targeting early bird shoppers with pre-season deals.

And remember, even when shoppers aren't spending, they're often going online to research the best bargains. Have your promotions ready early, and you may win the sale when shoppers are ready to check out.

2. Don't Stop Promoting

Making purchase on tablet

There are many ways to capture shoppers' attention during Thanksgiving weekend, even after the early discounts are over. Black Friday is still a big day for online sales, but 88 million consumers also specifically shopped on Small Business Saturday to support their local communities. This year's slogan is “Shop Small for All." To take full advantage of the opportunity, American Express, which sponsors the day, is offering free marketing materials and online ads for small businesses.

And don't forget about Cyber Monday, which drew 127 million shoppers in 2014, according to the NRF. The shopping doesn't stop there: Super Saturday, the last Saturday before Christmas, provides a great opportunity for last minute sales and deals. You can also create urgency with countdowns on how many shopping days remain.

3. Avoid Deal Fatigue

Offer a variety of promotions to keep shoppers interested throughout the holiday season. Knowing your customers can help you create targeted promotions. Women are more likely to shop early, for example, while men are more likely to procrastinate, with one in four guys waiting until December to start their holiday shopping, reports the NRF.

It's also important to remember that consumers don't shop for everything — or everyone — on their list at once. Teacher and co-worker gifts are often given earlier in the season, to coincide with school breaks and office parties. Meanwhile, electronics hit their peak around Thanksgiving, according to RetailMeNot. Rebates and discounted gift cards are popular alternatives in the final days of December.

4. Ship For Free

Holiday product shipping boxes

Savvy online shoppers actively search for free shipping offers before they buy. And retailers understand the importance of this promotion: A whopping 92 percent of retailers offer some form of free standard shipping during the holidays, with guaranteed Christmas delivery, according to Shop.org's 2014 eHoliday Survey.

If your budget can't accommodate free shipping throughout the holiday season, offer it on purchases over a certain amount, or choose key shopping days to offer the deal. A Forrester Research report on Cyber Monday, for example, found that “ubiquitous free shipping offers, aggressive email marketing, and an effective mobile presence" were three keys to driving sales on that day. Sitewide offers like free shipping typically generate more sales than single-item doorbusters that are only available in limited supply for a limited time, Forrester found.

5. Offer Gift Cards

You can't go wrong with gift cards as an easy way to sell both products and services in your online store. For eight years in a row, gift cards have been the most requested gift item during the holiday season, reports the NRF. And holiday shoppers are listening: Spending on gift cards has increased 28 percent since 2006 to $31.7 billion in 2014, the organization reports.

Get creative with gift cards by targeting the needs of your customers throughout the holiday season. A landscaping company might offer gift cards for putting up — and taking down — holiday lights. A nail salon could offer deals for pre-holiday parties, as well as indulgences for tired shoppers when the holidays are over. Gift cards that can be downloaded or e-mailed are ideal gifts for last-minute shoppers.

6. Make It Easy

Online shopping is all about convenience. So make sure it's as easy as possible to shop in your online store. Some 78 percent of shoppers say they value a website that's easy to use. And don't forget to optimize your site for mobile shoppers: Some 25 million consumers said they would specifically use a mobile device on Cyber Monday, reports the NRF.

Make shopping easy by creating lists of gift ideas for your target audience. Be sure to think through the entire shopping process. About 80 percent of shoppers say it's important for stores to have flexible return policies when buying gifts. Making items as easy to return as they are to buy is a good way to win customer loyalty.

Get ready for the 2015 holiday season with these tips to help your online store grow. You'll make the most out an amazing eCommerce opportunity, and win customers who will continue to shop with you in 2016.