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Spreading Holiday Cheer

BY Staff Writer

A lot has changed in the past year on the social media block. Facebook and Twitter are no longer the only two major players helping retailers connect and engage with their shoppers in real time. Consumers are flocking to platforms such as social-photo sharing sites Pinterest and Instagram, and some brands are even creating their own social blog accounts on Tumblr.

As retailers start to get ready for the busiest shopping time of the year, experts say they must consider how to best reach their target audience via the social platforms on which they already engaged.

“Unlike print, radio and television, social media gives some control to shoppers, allowing them to share with friends, comment or even curate,” said David Dorf, senior director of technology strategy at Redwood City, Calif.-based Oracle. “Done right, a smaller budget can actually reach more people and ‘go viral,’ allowing shoppers to participate and shape the message. These efforts can sometimes be stickier than traditional advertising and can engage these shoppers in ways that retain them in the long run.”

Here are some suggestions for how to make the most of the key social media platforms this holiday season — and all through the year:

Twitter: In addition to pumping out last-minute deals to followers, Twitter is unprecedented when it comes to optimizing direct-to-consumer marketing and customer service. Retailers can take advantage by combing through tweets and searching for keywords.

“If people are tweeting about having a sore throat, we’ve seen drug stores tweet back with a deal for cough drops,” said Molly Garris, digital strategy director for global ad agency Leo Burnett. “If a shopper says they are looking for a last-minute gift for a child, tweet them a suggestion and a discount code. Social listening is powerful, especially when it’s done at the right time and with the right message.”

Solutions are also available from companies such as New York City-based LocalResponse, which “listens” > for keywords and locations, and tweets targeted messages.

Meanwhile, Oracle’s Dorf recommends having someone on Live Chat and social media 24/7 to field customer-service inquiries.

Instagram: Although Instagram has been around since 2010, its growth skyrocketed in the past year, boasting 50 million members in the spring — around the time Facebook acquired it for a rumored $1 billion.

“Brands can get consumer consideration at a new speed,” Garris said. “Coupled with beautiful photography, companies such as Banana Republic are presenting looks in ways that resembles a high-end brand. Merchants are also sharing pictures that hint at future trends, which make shoppers feel like they have insider access.”

Pinterest: Pinterest — which also launched in 2010 — has become one of the most buzzed-about social networks, and retailers such as Macy’s and Nordstrom are already working hard to tackle the medium.

“Pinterest allows users to upload and share products — and a retailer can benefit from click-throughs to its website — but it’s also great for providing do-it-yourself project ideas and gifts,” Garris said. “Retailers can get creative and show how to make something special with their products.”

Facebook: In addition to posting pictures on Facebook that give context to products — such as a sweater for the dorm or a blanket for watching TV — integrating a Facebook Like button on product pages allows shoppers to share items with others. The images then show up in their friends’ news feeds, which furthers the brand’s reach.

“Brands aren’t necessarily seeing a lot of purchases from Facebook, but the ads are useful and so is encouraging people to share their purchases on the site,” said Sucharita Mulpuru, VP e-business and channel strategy at Forrester Research.

Tumblr: Brands such as Kate Spade, Anthropologie and Saks Fifth Avenue are turning to Tumblr — which rakes in 250 million page views each day — to create destination pages for fans, where they can check out pictures, videos, editorial and other multimedia content that bring products to life. Think of it as a modern-day, interactive catalog on the Web.

Overall, social media sites hold the key to engaging shoppers this holiday shopping season in ways that could last throughout the year.

“Broadcasting deals might drive sales in the short term, but smart retailers will find ways to establish a deeper, long-lasting relationship,” Dorf said.

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Focus on: Holiday Prep

BY Deena M. Amato-McCoy

There’s no question about it: Shoppers will have more options than ever before when it comes to shopping this holiday, from where and how they shop to how they pay. Given the myriad of choices available, experts agree that one of the keys to a successful holiday season — and long-term survival — is customer engagement.

By giving shoppers easy access to more customer touchpoints using both personal and store-level proprietary devices, retailers will be in a better position to drive customer relationships and sales. Here are some examples of how retailers are using innovative solutions to increase customer engagement:

• Geo-location-based Mobile Marketing

The proliferation of smart mobile devices has changed the retailing paradigm, as shoppers access e-commerce sites, social media, online customer reviews and even pay for purchases right from the palms of their hands.

By integrating a mobile platform that allows retailers to interact with consumers through their own personal devices, chains are inching closer to the “holy grail” of one-to-one personalized relationships. Geo-location-based marketing messages can help achieve this goal.

Austin, Texas-based University Co-op, which operates on the University of Texas campus, has deployed Digby’s mobile marketing platform, Localpoint, an opt-in program that delivers targeted messages to shoppers when they check in to the store, as they move through the space and when they scan bar codes and read reviews.

Shoppers download “The Co-op” app and the device’s GPS interacts with University Co-op’s SSID (service set identifier), or a name assigned to the retailer’s Wi-Fi network, creating a geo-fence. When the app is launched, the geo-fence detects a smartphone user’s proximity, and as they approach or enter a store, the app delivers personalized messages that can be stored in the app’s “offer wallet.” To redeem offers, customers simply click on their desired promotion and show the screen to the cashier. The app is available for both iPhone and Android smart devices.

Localpoint’s analytics tool gives the retailer insight into repeat visits, unique visitors, bar-code and QR code scans, offer redemptions, and time spent at each location. The tool determines patterns, and measures the economic impact and success of marketing initiatives.

“This is a fresh strategy and we are already seeing a significant impact,” said Brian Jewell, University Co-op’s VP marketing.

• “SoLoMo” Loyalty

When apparel retailer Guess?, Inc. was ready to launch its exclusive loyalty program, it decided to tap into the power of a social-local-mobile (SoLoMo) strategy.

A concept that evolved through the popularity of smartphones and tablets, SoLoMo integrates geo-location and the use of social media to allow retailers to gain a more intimate relationship with their shoppers.

“When retailers ask too much of their shoppers, loyalty tends to drop,” said Michael Relich, CIO and executive VP IT, Guess, Los Angeles, which operates 503 stores in the United States and Canada and 264 stores in Europe, Asia and Latin America. “By tying social media with our CRM [customer relationship marketing] database, we have access to more information than we could ever capture on our own.”

The retailer invites shoppers to download its mobile app to gain access to accrued loyalty points connected to previous purchases, new arrivals, a store locator, a gift-giving guide, a QR code scanner for merchandise scans and to receive geo-location-based promotions. If they link their personal Facebook account to the app, a token within Facebook gives Guess access to shopper information and navigation across the Guess fan page.

The company also aligns this information with a CRM database in the cloud “to do analytics on customer preferences and trends,” Relich explained. “Facebook allow us to learn about our customers and successfully do micro-segmentation.”

• The Next-Gen of FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

A retailer’s e-commerce site is often an omni-channel shopper’s first stop in the path to purchase. Details such as price, item attributes and even customer reviews are often available, helping to shape her overall decision. However, sometimes consumers need a deeper insight into merchandise.

Adorama, a New York City-based photography and related accessories multichannel retailer, improved the user experience of its website in time for last year’s holiday season. Its updated site design > features tools that help shoppers make better buying decisions, including buyer’s guides, gift-finder tools and a new question-and-answer tool from TurnTo Networks, New York City.

“Customer service is important all year long, but most importantly, during the holiday season,” said Glen Holman, CIO for the multichannel retailer. “Some shoppers troll forums and customer reviews to get answers about merchandise, but we go one step further. Our shoppers have specific technical questions, so we offer a community that can answer specific questions.”

When shoppers click on a product, they see an “Ask a Question” icon on the product’s page, which allows consumers to pose a question by clicking on a “Discuss” button. The question is sent out via email to other shoppers who have purchased the item in question. As responses come into the TurnTo tool, they are forwarded to the shopper via email and also posted on Adorama’s site.

Adorama has been using the tool for almost 12 months, and during testing, the emails had a 9% response rate, with consumers receiving an average of 4.3 answers per questions. A majority of these answers were received within 24 hours.

While other companies rely on FAQs or live chat to deliver immediate responses, these options are better suited for more common, general questions, such as those about customer service or sales information.

“Our incoming questions are very detailed and specific about our merchandise, how it works and functionality,” Holman explained. “Allowing them to ask specific questions and giving them detailed responses are big advantages over static reviews. We feel we are building communities around specific mini-topics.”

• Digital Signage

Eager to help shoppers make educated purchase decisions and find their desired product, more retailers are adding innovative digital signage solutions to in-store customer engagement strategies.

“While e-commerce is a strong piece of the [omni-channel] retailing equation, chains need to ensure their store-level experience reflects the ease and convenience of shopping online,” said Corbin Webster, an IT contractor who is currently working on projects for retailers, including Kroger and Kohl’s. “Deploying digital signage can help retailers keep the customer engaged and streamline the shopping experience.”

SaskTel, a Canadian-based wireless retailer, knows this challenge first-hand. The popularity of smart technology keeps its 11 stores buzzing with shoppers, but long waits to complete transactions were impacting the overall customer experience. When the company began a three-year store redesign program, it put consumer-centricity at the top of its priority list and chose digital signage as a means to deliver consistent information across the chain.

“The screens broadcast wireless rate plans, accessories, as well as static promotions, information that is paramount for shoppers make better purchase decisions,” explained Joel Ganong, marketing manager, SaskTel.

Currently, four digital screens feature product information, as well as up to six 42-in. monitors that display advertising messages.

Since installing the digital screens last spring, Ganong reported that SaskTel has increased sales by an average of 58%, compared with stores not yet using the electronic signs.

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Gearing Up for the Holidays in an Election Year

BY Bill Martin

When the days grow shorter and the air starts to turn chilly, retail companies prepare for their hottest time of year. As they get ready for the holiday season, retailers will do well to keep three additional factors in mind:

u Adjust for the presidential election. Typically, retailers market heavily in October and early November to drive store foot traffic as the holidays begin. Early marketing efforts, however, will not go as far this holiday season.

ShopperTrak’s analysis reveals shopping activity tends to lessen before national election days. During the 2004 presidential election, for example, retail foot traffic saw a year-over-year decline of 0.7% the week before the election and 2.2% the week of the election. Similarly, in 2008, retail foot traffic declined 3.7% the week before the presidential election and 6.3% the week of the election, when compared with the same period the year before. While economic factors account for some of these declines, especially in 2008, the data show elections do have an impact on these rates.

Retailers should plan for decreased traffic leading up to the Nov. 6 election this year and keep the marketing powder dry until after the election. Scheduling marketing efforts to coincide with when customers are ready to shop will make a bigger impact.

• Schedule against the calendar. Retailers that schedule operating hours and staff based simply on last year’s store performance and calendar will lose out this holiday season.

Movement of key shopping days on the calendar affects each season. For example, in 2010, Dec. 26 fell on Sunday, a day that generally features church service conflicts and abbreviated shopping hours. Last year, however, Dec. 26 fell on a Monday — and people who took Monday as a holiday stormed stores in record numbers. So, while Dec. 26 is often a busy day, many retailers were ill-prepared to service these additional shoppers and lost business that day.

Another casualty of calendar shift last year was the Friday and Saturday right before Christmas. Those days lost some retail steam because shoppers were more likely to stay home and begin their holiday weekend early. Dec. 17, the Saturday one week before Christmas, therefore, was the third-busiest shopping day of the season and generated $7.4 billion in sales.

Based on more than 20 years of historical foot traffic data, ShopperTrak expects the weekend before Christmas (Dec. 21 to Dec. 23) this year to be one of the biggest of the season. Since Christmas 2012 falls on a Tuesday, last-minute shoppers will go to stores that weekend without sacrificing any of their holiday plans. This year, retailers that use historical traffic patterns and benchmarking tools will gain similar, critical insights to beat out those that don’t.

• Earn customer loyalty all year. The holidays may be retail’s busiest time of the year, but shoppers make buying decisions all year long. Retailers that wait until the holidays to build customer loyalty and bring in new business are too late.

The 2011 holiday season accounted for only 21% of annual sales. And while holiday sales improved 3.7% over 2010, in-store foot traffic decreased 3.1% compared with the previous holiday season. While foot traffic has slightly improved this year, retailers must be prepared to make the most of every shopper opportunity that walks through the doors — all year long.

Holiday preparedness is more important than ever. Retailers able to stuff their stockings a little fuller this year will earn customer loyalty early and plan for positive customer experiences based on historical foot traffic.

About the author

Bill Martin is the founder and executive VP of ShopperTrak, a leading retail technology company that anonymously counts people, analyzes data and identifies opportunities to increase revenue for retailers, mall developers and entertainment venues. Find out more at Shoppertrak.com.

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