4 tips for improving e-commerce over the holidays

shipping container port
ShipStation's Robert Gilbreath gives tips for navigating holiday shipping.

The holidays are a great time of year for e-commerce retailers to grow their business. But all retailers need to prepare now for the shipping rush if they want to meet and exceed consumer expectations while simultaneously growing loyalty and their consumer base. Robert Gilbreath, vice president of marketing at shipping software company ShipStation, says that it starts with practice.

"Practice your current process to identify any points of friction that you might be able to remove this year," Gilbreath recommends. "It might be a piece of your physical process or a software choice you previously made that needs to be changed, or used in a different manner." 

Gilbreath and ShipStation share their top four strategies for navigating the busy fourth quarter. 

1. Go above and beyond

Whether a company is a large online marketplace or a small, one-store business, customers expect the same services. And return policies hold big weight with consumers. In fact, a recent study conducted by the National Retail Federation found that many shoppers ultimately backed out of a holiday purchase because of an inconvenient return policy. Specifically, 57% of customers backed out due to lack of free return shipping, 57% because the store offered only credit instead of a full refund, and 42% because of the small return window.

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Gibreath said when it comes to communicating what is in stock and when it will arrive, transparency is key to building loyalty. 

2. Experience is everything

Gibreath notes that customers want targeted promotions, coupons and substantial discounts in return for their loyalty. However, experience is still a top priority for retailer and customers. According to Forrester, 72% of businesses say that improving the customer experience is their top priority. 

"No one wants a bad user experience; therefore, making your website easy to navigate with a simple purchasing process can go a long way. Convenience and savings always wins the customer over," he said. 

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Consumers consistently rank free shipping as the most important option when checking out online, said Gilbreath, who recommends retailers motivate shoppers to order more by offering free shipping, especially if the order is placed prior to the company's busiest weeks. 

3. You are your brand

Consumers often make purchasing decisions based on an emotional connection to a brand, so retailers need to build all aspects of branding including websites, customer emails, product details, brand ambassadors and more. Giving customers a great experience makes them want to return to the store.

Gilbreath notes that a great way to build an e-commerce brand is through social media. Citing PwC’s 2017 Retail Survey, he said that 39% of people use social networks to get inspiration for purchases. Platforms like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram can boost brand exposure, grow a retailer's following and promote sales. 

"Branding is the key to fostering that powerful personal connection to your store," he said. 

He suggests retailers engage on social with likes, comments and sharing content that provides a human connection to the brand.

4. Get technical 

Gilbreath says it's important to re-evaluate a retailer's e-commerce workflow to speed up processes, so brands can spend less time on packing and shipping and more time growing the business. This means investing in technology to automate the process.

He notes that his company's technology allows users to compare shipping prices, print labels and correspond with customers via a single hub. ShipStation also syncs with accounting software.

So ultimately, what will be the defining point that sets retailers apart this holiday season? According to Gilbreath, it's the ones that do something unique for their shoppers who will stand out. 

"Something like making sure their packaging, packing slips, and shipping labels carry their branding goes a long way to keep their customers tied to their brands," he said.