Conquering the peak

Although some may want discounts, offering a standout experience and specialist expertise may appeal more to your target audience and won’t squeeze your margins, claims IMRG editor Andy Mulcahy

The peak selling period is almost upon us, which begs an important question – when and what is ‘peak’?

Over the past few years, the pattern of peak sales for online retailers has gone through a fairly remarkable transition. Peak actually used to refer to a series of mini-peaks throughout November and December, with the final Monday in November and the first one in December typically seeing the highest levels of site traffic and sales. In short, peak lasted for ages.

Then Black Friday changed all of that. The event built up over a few years and, in 2014, managed to achieve such a level of awareness and buzz with shoppers in the UK that it massively exceeded forecasts and overwhelmed some operators – as it served to compress a huge volume of sales into a very short time frame.

Then, in 2015, it evolved once again. While 2014 was notable for in-store scuffles (at least from the media’s perspective), last year featured images of empty shops as buyers flocked online instead, presumably put off by the images from 2014. And, crucially, Black Friday was no longer a day, but a ‘period’, with some sellers extending campaigns over days, weeks and even longer in some cases.

Looking ahead to this year, the evidence so far points to a Black Friday campaign time frame that is broadly similar to that of last year – although many will likely try to ‘own-brand’ their specific campaign to something other than the standard ‘Black Friday’ in order to stand out a bit from the huge amount of marketing noise coming from numerous sectors.

Black Friday is no longer just the exclusive domain of retailers – we saw plenty of other niche businesses get involved in 2015.

Standing out

Which brings us to what you can do to stand out from the competition and secure your share of shopper spend. Which is a complex question, but the main thing is to ensure you play to your strengths.

There is an assumption that Black Friday needs to be about discounting – really, it is about proposition. If you think shoppers will respond well to discounting and you are confident you can still maintain profit margins, then your approach is simple enough in principle. However, consider spreading the available offers over several days – perhaps focusing on a single category or selected products each day – to give people reasons to visit your site each day of your campaign.

But there are alternatives to discounting. It’s worth keeping in mind that the discounting frenzy approach splits opinion right down the middle. For some, it represents consumerism gone mad, and these shoppers may respond well to different approaches. You might have strong green credentials to play on, or offer to donate a certain percentage of sales revenue gained during your campaign to a charity in place of discounting. Or you may bring your expertise to the forefront, offering specialist clinics and advice throughout the period.

However you decide to approach it, make sure it suits your proposition, so it can strike the right chord with shoppers.

There are two fundamental questions to address in the lead-up to peak. Can your site take orders, and can you fulfil those orders and live up to the customer’s expectations?

Over the Black Friday period, people are primed to shop – it’s when they expect the best deals to be around, so they arrive online in their droves. As we’ve seen in the past, that can knock sites out completely, but that’s not the only threat. Shoppers are often impatient, and any delay caused either by your own site, or a third-party site you connect to, may drive them elsewhere.

Logistics

If your site performs well and your marketing is drawing in customers, the next challenge is logistics. Communication is key – if all departments know what is discounted and likely to shift in increased volumes, they can plan for it accordingly.

And be realistic with shoppers about delivery lead-times. People tend to prefer having a degree of certainty over when exactly something will arrive, rather than getting it fulfilled quickly. The Black Friday period will start in November, so there is plenty of time to clear the bulk of the peak orders.

Peak can be a little frantic, but it’s worth putting some thought into follow-up campaigns. If you manage to attract new customers, but need to discount in order to do so, think about ways to convert them from impulse buyers into loyal and returning customers in the longer term.