The five stages of Christmas

Christmas is the busiest time of the year for retailers. It’s a make-or-break period for the whole year’s results, particularly in the current climate. As a result, retailers have to plan meticulously to make sure that they have a cross-channel marketing strategy to drive the best possible Christmas sales.

Brands are focusing increasingly on their email marketing programmes to build engagement in the lead-up to this crucial season. Email is a killer channel but for best effect it should be used alongside web, social, mobile and display.

So how should retailers use email as part of a strategy to create genuine engagement around Christmas? We have identified five key times when retailers should focus email communications for successful Christmas trading:

Pre-Holiday Period
Remember the one about Christmas getting earlier every year? Research has shown that 40 per cent of consumers start their Christmas shopping before Halloween. Many retailers try to capitalise on this, Responsys found that last year, 60 per cent of major retailers mentioned the Christmas season in promotional emails before the end of October. Velvet Brown, for example, was promoting its Christmas door wreaths by 28th October.

On top of any seasonal messaging across web, email, social, mobile and display channels, this is the time when retailers should be making general preparations such as ensuring they have correct customer email details, and profiling customers to enable segmentation and personalisation of emails.

Black November (the first three weeks of November)
Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving in the US, when retailers traditionally launch special promotions in the run-up to Christmas-and see huge sales as a result. Now the Black Friday concept has reached the UK. The recent trend of encouraging consumers to start their holiday shopping by offering Black Friday pricing and deals early has become known as Black November.

In truth, everything prior to November is the warm up. Now Christmas messaging really takes hold, so brands should consider using free delivery or other offers to encourage purchases. Emails in November traditionally include added-value features such as gift guides–as Orvis did on 14th November–as emails start to mirror the in-store transformations seen around Christmas. This messaging is replicated in communications across all channels.

Research shows that Christmas messaging in emails jumps significantly on 31st October and 1st November, and doesn’t fall again until after Christmas. At this time, retailers can build engagement by encouraging subscribers to shop gift collections, claim free gift wrapping or download special holiday gift apps.

Traditionally November has been the runway to Christmas for retailers, with marketing activity ramping up towards Black Friday, which has long been considered the start of the Christmas season. And with good reason: In 2011, 69 per cent of retailers sent emails on Black Friday, with an increase in email volume helping to drive a 24.3 per cent increase in sales compared to 2010, according to IBM Coremetrics.

Cyber Monday

Coined in the US, Cyber Monday is the first Monday after Thanksgiving, one of the biggest shopping days of the year. British retailers also report stellar sales on this date, with analysts last year predicting sales of over £400 million on Cyber Monday. Amazon.co.uk is predicting that Cyber Monday will be Monday, 3rd December this year, with the highest volume of customer orders expected to be placed at 9.20 pm.

Retailers have been quick to capitalise on this. Cyber Monday in 2011 set a new record for the busiest email marketing day ever recorded. So is this the best day to email your customers to encourage purchases? Not necessarily, because on Cyber Monday emails will have the most competition from other retailers. Some retailers try to out-manoeuvre competitors by sending their emails on days around Cyber Monday instead.

Countdown to Christmas (the remaining weeks leading up to Christmas)
After Cyber Monday we enter the core of the holiday season, and the email messaging changes to invoke urgency. Retailers use “one-day deals” and shipping deadline notifications to encourage customers to hurry to make purchases in time for Christmas.

Some retailers like Play.com did last year run “12 days of Christmas” email campaigns with new offers each day. Another prominent feature is “free shipping day”, which gives consumers a money-saving incentive to purchase. Delivery deadlines feature heavily in emails, and savvy retailers target consumers with e-gift card promotions as soon as the deadline passes – for those who are panicking about gifts.

Post-Christmas Period (Christmas and January)
Now the theme shifts from gift-buying to clearance sales, gift card redemptions and up-selling. Sales messaging is strongest between Christmas Day and New Year, and retailers emailing on Christmas Day itself should ensure that messages are optimised for mobile because few consumers spend Christmas at their PCs. Take ASOS for instance, its mobile-optimised email arrived on Christmas Day inviting customers to shop the sale. For this reason, social and mobile can be effective channels to reach consumers at times when emails will be competing for eye-share in crowded inboxes.

There is always a certain pressure for retailers at Christmas. But running an effective email marketing programme as part of a complete cross-channel strategy can lighten the load and have a positive impact on festive sales. Brands should start planning early, and ask what they can learn from last year’s campaigns. They will be rewarded for their preparation when the festive season comes around.

by  Simon Robinson, senior director marketing and alliances, EMEA at Responsys

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