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E-commerce channel partners prep merchants for holiday sales

Channel partners in the e-commerce space are optimizing and testing shopping sites for what one market watcher predicts will be a $95 billion-plus sales season.

E-commerce channel partners have spent the past few months preparing merchants for the holiday shopping season, helping their clients adopt new technologies and new approaches for luring customers to online shopping sites.

In recent years, the convenience of shopping online, the wide selection of products that can be purchased tax-free and technological improvements to retail websites have been key drivers of e-commerce's success, which has outperformed expectations among retailers and shoppers alike. If Forrester Research Inc.'s forecast of online shopping is any indication, 2015 will be no different.

In a report published this month and entitled, Brief: U.S. Online Holiday Retail Forecast, 2015, Forrester predicted that U.S. online holiday sales will exceed $95 billion in 2015, representing an 11% growth rate compared with 2014 sales. E-commerce channel partners that focus on designing, developing and improving their merchant customers' websites are keenly aware that this peak-sales season opens opportunities to showcase their expertise in developing retail websites.

At the same time, e-commerce channel partners wishing to distinguish themselves in an increasingly competitive market understand that they need to keep up with the fast pace of change in online shopping.

E-commerce outlook: Seeing growth in mobile

For example, one key takeaway from Forrester's report is that more consumers are shopping on mobile phones; mobile shopping is particularly popular during Thanksgiving and Black Friday, because smartphones let shoppers access date-sensitive offers anytime and anywhere. The report revealed that retailers saw an 87% growth in sales via mobile phones in 2014 compared with 2013, and analysts predict this trend will continue through 2015.

That said, companies such as Blue Acorn Inc., an e-commerce design and development firm based in Charleston, S.C., are taking notice of this phenomenon.

Timm Henderlight, Blue Acorn's strategic engagement manager, said the increased use of mobile devices for purchasing products represents "the biggest way e-commerce technology is changing."

He continued: "We continue to see tremendous growth in primary key performance indicators (KPIs), such as visitors, sessions and revenue year over year. Between October 2014 and 2015 alone, our clients experienced a 36% increase in mobile sessions, 70% increase in orders and 93% increase in sales."

Blue Acorn works with an array of online retailers, especially in the consumer product market in various verticals -- such as food and beverage, high-end fashion, cookware, and home and bath hardware. The company views mobile shopping as an opportunity to help customers convert "browsers" into shoppers through the mobile experience. To do this, the company is focused on offering a better mobile user experience by launching fully responsive websites that display graphics and information to fit the user's screen size and device type.

"Since many users still consider the mobile experience cumbersome -- especially when having to submit all the necessary order-information details -- solutions like PayPal One Touch allow customers to log in once, and then quickly and seamlessly shop on thousands of websites without having to manually re-enter personal information, such as billing addresses and credit card numbers, multiple times," Henderlight said.  

E-commerce channel: Partners plan ahead

While improving the mobile shopping experience is one way to lure customers to its services during the holiday season, Blue Acorn has also found that using a data-driven approach to website optimization is the basis for enriching the retail client's experience and offers an approach that company executives said differentiates it from the competition.

Henderlight said the company begins planning website design, development and upgrades for the holiday season after clients have launched their "back-to-school" campaigns, and noted that the latest time for having these discussions is late July to early August.

Blue Acorn, which uses e-commerce platforms from Magento -- an open source content management system -- and the cloud-based platform offered by Demandware, prepares companies for the spike in online holiday sales by conducting a variety of tests and collecting data from client's websites that provide information on many different features, functionality, and user experiences.  

By evaluating a website's KPIs, as well as Google Analytics results that track website traffic, Blue Acorn's team compares the data with industry trends and develops best practices for its retail clients. The company said this strategy is effective in increasing sales, average order value, conversion rates and revenue per visitor.

Based on the information, customers receive "holiday tips and best practices" that provide recommendations on optimal platform performance settings, along with sales and marketing suggestions. Additionally, Blue Acorn conducts performance audits and load testing on the client's website to ensure maximum production uptime.

Another company that discusses online retail strategies with customers during the mid-year timeframe is Bluefish Digital, a Web designer and developer based in Ipswich, Mass. However, for clients using Shopify, the small and medium-sized business-oriented e-commerce platform of Shopify Inc., conversations don't hinge on the technical aspects of improving online retail sites.

Cloud-based, easy-to-use services like Shopify are lowering the barriers to entry and increasing the number of retailers turning to online shopping sites, especially small companies with no or low technical expertise and smaller startup budgets, said Jeremy France, partner at Bluefish Digital.

"For our clients using Shopify, we generally don't need to make any technical preparations to account for increased volume for the holiday shopping season," France said. "That's one of the reasons we like to put companies into Shopify; the scalability aspect is taken care of and you don't need to worry about crashing the server like you did in the old days."

Other considerations: security, testing

Another consideration is security. As more consumers visit online retail websites during the holiday season, security is a big concern and one of the reasons cloud computing e-commerce platforms are becoming more attractive, according to Daniel Townsend, founding partner at Chicago-based Web development and design firm The Plum Tree Group Inc.

We want our clients to get the most out of their e-commerce platform, the most out of their internal team and the most out of their marketing budget.
Daniel Townsendfounding partner, The Plum Tree Group Inc.

"We work across a number of different platforms, and some of these platforms have recently released software patches that we're having to incorporate into our current workflow process," Townsend said. "It can be a lot to keep up with and I think this will drive more merchants to consider software as a service-based platforms. It's certainly a reason why we're also big fans of Bigcommerce, MarketLive and Shopify."

Townsend also said his company is conducting a lot more A/B testing during the holidays to take advantage of the higher traffic numbers.

"When doing A/B testing, you can reach statistically significant conclusions faster the larger the sample size of the test. Consequently, as traffic levels rise during November, December and January, we are also using this as an opportunity to test different elements of the site to optimize for conversion," Townsend said.

Additionally, the company is conducting load and stress testing on sites as early as October to ensure they can handle any major traffic peaks.

While the brisk online holiday shopping season offers e-commerce channel partners the opportunity to test systems and fine-tune websites, Townsend said his company's main goal is helping all its clients, and the consumers they serve, get the most out of the holiday season.

"It's hard to point to any one thing, but we want to make everything easier: We want to make paying easier, make it easier to shop on mobile devices, make it easier for a merchant to syndicate products onto their social platforms and make it easier for customers to write a review," Townsend said. "We want our clients to get the most out of their e-commerce platform, the most out of their internal team and the most out of their marketing budget."

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