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Procrastination abounds: Six tips for enticing the last minute holiday shopper

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With the $6 billion Cyber Week and the $5.9 billion week that followed now behind us, it’s becoming clear that standard shipping deadlines will be hitting imminently. Of course, we also know that many consumers are procrastinators (yours truly included): according to the most recent NRF Consumer Intentions & Actions survey, online shoppers tell us that they've completed not quite half (47.7%) of their holiday shopping so far this year.

Lest you think that shipping deadlines will have consumers rushing to finish their shopping, however, history would tell us otherwise.  Last year, the Google Retail Advertising Blog noted that, as of December 21, the average consumer had completed just two-thirds of his / her shopping, and (gulp!) almost one out of five hadn’t yet made a single holiday purchase.  This year, 34.8% of online consumers expect to buy their last holiday gift between Thursday, December 22 and Saturday, December 24. We may see something of a sales surge repeat from last year, when comScore found that online shoppers spent $2.45 billion just in the week ending December 26, up 16.6% from the same period in 2009.

Since this ingrained procrastination behavior clearly isn't changing significantly this year, a few thoughts for retailers contemplating their marketing and merchandising strategies for the days immediately leading up to December 25.

Consumers want - and are buying - gift cards.  Two-thirds of online consumers tell us that a gift card is what they most want to receive this year for themselves - and, it turns out, 34% this holiday season have already bought gifts cards for others. A perennial last minute gift solution, make online gift cards accessible from the homepage and use them in product and cart cross-sells. Showcase all the online gift card options and don’t confuse customers with physical cards (that, by then, have no chance of arriving in time). Amazon offers gift card delivery via email (either immediately or scheduled up to a year in advance), via Facebook wall post, printable at home, or with a holiday card that includes free one-day shipping, while The Home Depot lets customers customize the electronic gift card with a photo or video clip.

If you’ve got ‘em, flaunt ‘em – virtual goods, that is. Amazon last year sent an email just a day or two before Christmas touting its lineup of books, music, videos, and games available for instant purchase, download and online gifting. If you’re lucky enough to offer any kind of virtual good, promote that across marketing and social media to be the retail hero for panicked customers. If you don’t offer virtual goods, try a suggestion from Michael Griffin of Adlucent - the product (vs. cash) gift card: instead of posting a $25 gift card to the friend’s Facebook wall, the customer could post a card with a picture of the product that he or she actually bought from your online store, with the assurance from you, as the retailer, that the item is on its way -- if due for delivery after December 25.

Push buy online, pick up in store (or – special delivery?).  While over half (53.2%) of online shoppers plan to do some of their remaining holiday shopping online this week and next, almost as many (47.3%) will also be shopping in department stores, and one-quarter in specialty stores such as electronics and clothing stores, among other venues.  If you offer a "buy online, pick up in store" fulfillment option, make it front and center on the homepage, add a reminder on the product and check out pages, and feature it in marketing emails and social media. Once in store, make sure the in-store pick up experience is smooth – even enjoyable! – for the customer (who might just pick up a few other items while they’re there…). As another idea, Barnes & Noble continues to offer same-day delivery within Manhattan. While implementing that kind of service at this point in the season is likely infeasible for most, it’s perhaps something one could pull off in certain metro areas close to a store (even just for a few days, perhaps?), or via courier service (and perhaps only for one’s very best customers).

Promote the store as a welcome destination. For retailers with brick & mortar stores, now’s the time to push the store locator information front and center on the homepage, in emails, and via social media such as Facebook and Twitter. In emails and social media, talk about gift ideas waiting in store (even already wrapped) as well as in-store services  and events such as valet or complimentary parking, cookies and hot chocolate, story time for kids while parents shop, 5-minute massages, gift wrapping, sales proceeds for a specific charitable organization, etc. Additionally, in the coming days, 29% of online shoppers plan to use their smartphone to look up retailer information, and 34% will use their tablet devices to do the same - so make sure that info is up to date and works flawlessly on both devices.

Augment service around returns. Buying at the last minute sometimes results in not quite the right gift, so bolster customer confidence that you’ll handle returns quickly and efficiently. Remind customers of return options, including gift receipts (close to two-thirds of consumers say they include a gift receipt with their gift), return time frames (maybe extend those a bit temporarily to increase customer buying confidence), and perhaps a free returns shipping offer (customers say they value this kind of offer quite a bit).

Know that you’ll be competing with post-holiday season email messages. Last year, we saw several retailers, among those Target and HSN, who started to promote their after-Christmas sales as early as December 22. These offers were made only online and specified that delivery would occur only after December 25, but – assuming we see these again this year – this type of message will add to the general messaging cacophony around that time.

For additional perspective on gift cards specifically, please see Digital Gift Cards: A Retail Work in Progress by CashStar and RSR, and Gifting the e-Way by the e-tailing group and CashStar, in the White Paper Library.