10 shopping changes your ecommerce site needs now

The 2012 holiday shopping season right around the corner, but it's not too late to make changes to your ecommerce site to take advantage of the holidays-even if budgets are tight or you have little in-house technical expertise to make changes on your website.

Preparation takes on added importance this year thanks to the extension of the traditional online holiday shopping period. As with brick-and-mortar stores, says James Gagliardi, vice president of products and innovation at Digital River, we can expect online retailers to start holiday promotions as early as Black Friday (the Friday following Thanksgiving, which this year falls on the earliest date possible) and Cyber Monday (the Monday immediately following Black Friday) and extend promotions well past New Year's Day in January 2013.

To help you prepare for this long holiday haul, CIO.com spoke with several ecommerce experts and vendors to discover what changes you can easily make on your site right now to cash in on online holiday sales.

1. Start with a usability review

Business owners who have spent months planning marketing and merchandising can sometimes forget that simple website issues such as category labels or confusing error messages can have a big impact on customers.

Brian Walker, senior vice president of strategy at hybris software, recommends a quick usability review with live customers, as this may reveal some low-hanging fruit that's easy to fix. "If customers get confused or can't find what they're looking for, the results are immediate-they are shopping elsewhere," Walker says.

2. Refresh key website elements

Eddie Machaalani and Mitch Harper, founders and co-CEOs of Bigcommerce, say the holidays can be make or break time for online merchants. Simply refreshing elements of your website might improve traffic and sales come Cyber Monday.

"This doesn't necessarily mean a complete overhaul of the website," Machaalani notes. "Small updates, called-out specials and features that help streamline the purchasing process and show off bundled products will go a long way and potentially increase up-sell rates."

3. Use custom holiday landing pages

Gagliardi says a technique that's worked for his clients is creating and using custom landing pages for all promotional activity. "We see a tremendous uplift in having those custom pages when compared with driving customers to standard category and product pages," he says, adding that clients who use custom landing pages for holiday promotions tend to see improved click-through and conversion.

4. Promote free shipping

Most experts agree that you should roll out free shipping for the holidays. If you can offer free shipping, be sure to prominently say so on your homepage and in ads, says VendioCEO Mike Effle. "The words 'Free Shipping' can bring in more buyers, even if you [attach a] condition it on [such as] a minimum order amount," he says.

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Michael Lee, director of global marketing for Alibaba.com, also recommends free shipping. However, he cautions you must be clear about the free shipping deadline when you promote it on your site. "This increases the sense of urgency, as well as better manages customer expectation to avoid a negative experience," he says.

5. Focus on content and merchandising optimizations

At this stage of the year, any significant redesign of the experience or site optimization should be finished and now you can focus on site content and merchandising optimization. Don't guess what the customer wants, hybris software's Walker says. Instead, test different versions of content in short cycles and optimize quickly for the winner. "With traffic at peak, the click-through on content bake-offs are meaningful," he says. "Optimizing the marketing and merchandising will add real revenue and margin."

Next page: Ease the checkout process...

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