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Hitting the Holiday E-Commerce Jackpot

Experts are expecting a boom in online holiday sales -- and they say it's not too late to maximize profits.

Although U.S. spending on gifts will be down slightly, according to The Conference Board, online buying will rise, with 34 percent of all consumers buying holiday gifts on the Internet.

There still are steps merchants can take to make sure that faulty Web-site design or online retailing practices don't stand in the way of their selling as many pairs of fuzzy slippers as possible.

Price will be an issue for shoppers. According to Internet traffic monitor Hitwise, in the week ending Nov. 19, Google and Yahoo sent 25 percent more visits to the 10 leading shopping comparison sites than they did last year.

Those two search services combined accounted for 11.3 percent and 12.8 percent of the total traffic to shopping and classifieds Web sites.

"We definitely see holiday shoppers pulled in by the free shipping and any other offer," said Scott Wingo, CEO of ChannelAdvisor, which offers e-commerce software and services for merchants to sell on a wide variety of sites, including eBay and Amazon.com . "Gift wrap -- any holiday services you can provide will extend your holiday sales."

Although the shopping season officially kicks off on Nov. 25, AKA Black Monday, retailers still have time for some simple but effective tweaks, said Mark Wachen, CEO of Optimost, a provider of Web-based tools that lets Web publishers test multiple variables within a page to find the optimal configuration.

First, Wachen said, Web navigation, forms and submit buttons should be large and clear. For example, although it may seem obvious, the words "click here" can be magic. One customer increased sales by 10.5 percent by changing a button from "Get X Now" to "Click Here to Try X."

"There will be some percentage of people who, if you say something obtuse or cute, may not realize they're supposed to click on it," he said. "And make it look like a button, rather than some design flourish that may look great to an art director but may not be obvious to the consumer."

Flash movies, virtual tours or demos and similar bells and whistles shouldn't take center stage this season, Wachen said. Move links for these down to the bottom of the page, where those who are interested can find them.

"Those kinds of virtual tours or fancy Flash demos can work well with a certain part of your audience, but it can create problems for the subset of your audience that either isn't on a high-speed modem or doesn't have Flash installed," he said. "If you promote it too heavily, you run the risk of people going down that path and getting lost."

Wingo of ChannelAdvisor added, "During the holidays, people tend to be rushed, and they have holiday attention deficit issues," he said. "You want to get people on your site through checkout as quickly as possible."

This is not a good time to ask shoppers to opt in to newsletters, customize their experience or express their preferences. "You get a little too aggressive with that stuff, and shopping-cart abandonment can go way up during the holidays," he said. Instead, move such interactions to a screen following the completion of the transaction, so nothing gets in the way of the sale.

Following the "less-is-more" theme, Wachen advised cutting copy in half whenever possible. " Just the mere thought of seeing a paragraph of text can be a turnoff. You're in a rush; you just want to get done."

The judicious use of bold type can also speed the process by highlighting important information, he said.

And when shopping involves the holidays, the assurance of timely delivery matters.

Wingo pointed out that shipping and delivery dates are a huge issue for the holidays. "Be really clear about when products will arrive," he said. "It's the one time of year when one day can make a huge difference."

If only it were that easy.

John Stelzer, director of industry development for Sterling Commerce, said that multi-channel retailers often are stuck with multiple systems that don't communicate.

"When you sell through multiple channels, each of those tends to be a different set of applications that tend to not work well with each other," he said.

Sterling Commerce sells business integration software for the retail industry; it's designed to allow all the different applications a retailer might use to exchange information.

Integrating the software that handles warehousing and tracking orders through the supply chain with the software that handles in-store sales and e-commerce enables merchants to let customers buy online and return to the store, or buy online and pick up at the store.

"A number of stores say they sell more product when the consumer comes to the store to pick up," Stelzer said. "So there's an upside potential: I've gotten them into the store where I have a chance to touch them again and sell them more product."

It's way too late for merchants to get such business integration software up and running for this season, Stelzer said. But at the least, merchants should keep an eye on the efficiency and effectiveness of the manufacturers they buy from, so that they can begin to fix any problems as soon as that last pair of pink slippers is returned.