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Holiday digital priorities

E-commerce holiday sales are expected to increase 18% to 21% this holiday season, reaching $111 to $114 billion, according to the annual holiday sales forecast from Deloitte. With online growth eclipsing total holiday sales growth (expected to rise 4% to 4.5%), savvy retailers will be pulling out all the stops to step up their digital game.

Industry experts say retailers need to create an engagement strategy based on individual customer needs — along with the optimal solutions to support their efforts.

“Retailers that fail to 'digitally disrupt’ themselves run the risk of getting left behind,” said Gordon White, general manager of The Social Client, a digital marketing provider. “At the same time, investing in digital tools for the sake of disruption will show minimal return. Technology should enable and enhance the user experience.”

Among the top digital strategies this holiday season are:

• Personalization. To attract shoppers, retailers need to tailor the shopping experience to individual needs. Personalizing marketing messages is the easiest way to jump into the game.

“There are different types of customers, and all have different needs,” said Brett Bair, principal strategist at Monetate.

Despite having access to a wealth of customer behavior and purchasing data, companies still don’t effectively use this information to meet consumer expectations. However, there is still time. The first step is to centralize all customer data, making information actionable. Experts also advise retailers to keep messaging simple.

“Don’t overdo initiatives just to be top of mind,” said Jason VandeBoom, founder of ActiveCampaign, a provider of integrated email marketing, marketing automation and CRM. “Begin analyzing customer actions from previous messages and how these turned into purchases. Also, identify how they interact with various channels.

For those retailers that are behind in their initiatives, it is not too late to start.

“Keep programs simple, and maintain processes going after the holiday season to learn how to master tailored messaging,” VandeBoom added.

• Mobility. Smart devices are the key for retailers to stay engaged with their customers before, during and after the shopping experience. Whether using the internet or an app, retailers need to leverage mobility as a means of keeping consumers and associates abreast of available inventory, the status of in-transit orders and even connect customers with service agents — via live chat or chatbots.

In its 2017 holiday outlook, research firm Forrester emphasized that retailers need to perfect the mobile checkout process ahead of the holiday rush, or they risk losing sales. To smooth mobile checkout, Forrester recommends streamlining the mobile checkout task flow.

“Easy fixes include reducing form fields, asking for only one address for both shipping and billing by default, and adding capabilities to proactively suggest addresses as the user starts to type,” the report stated. “Beware any instances where you ask the customer to enter information that they’ve already added earlier in the process.”

The study also recommends eliminating anything that impedes progress, such as content and text that are too small.

• Artificial intelligence. To best meet customer needs, retailers need to know what matters most to shoppers this holiday season. This is where AI, or software that imitates intelligent human behavior, comes into play. Retailers are tapping AI as a support for chatbots. GameStop, for example, used chatbots last holiday season to track its online orders — a service that had a 20% opt-in rate.

“AI will play an increasingly important role to identify which customer questions are better suited to digital tools, and which require live assistance,” White said. “This is especially critical during the holidays as your stores and contact centers begin receiving an influx of customer calls, orders and questions.”

• Cloud computing. Besides being more scalable than a licensed solution managed in-house, cloud-based solutions secure customer interactions, sustain load time and manage customer sessions.

Walmart, for example, is investing in high-level graphical processing units, or Nvidia chips. Accessible through a cloud network, this will be the foundation for Walmart to build out AI systems, from natural language processing and image recognition to machine learning.

“Whether ensuring pages load quickly, or push out new iterations of mobile apps or websites, retailers relying on the cloud will be able to scale and keep up momentum throughout the holiday season and beyond,” said Michael Levine, VP of marketing at digital solutions provider Photon.
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