Given the apprehension regarding Christmas sales last year, due a combination of a weak pound and post-Brexit nervousness, it can be difficult to accurately forecast how retailers will fare this festive season. There were, however, some clear winners in 2017.

Fashion retailers Ted Baker, Superdry, and stood out for their online results, with the former reporting a 35% year-on-year online sales increase in the two-month run up to January 6th 2018. Boohoo also revealed that in the four-month lead up to December 31st 2017, they witnessed an incredible 100% increase in revenue.

On the other end of the scale, Debenhams, Mothercare, House of Fraser, and Marks & Spencer were some of the retailers to announce poorer Christmas performances. Mothercare has since announced store closures and major internal restructuring, as has department store House of Fraser, which reported that sales in the six-week countdown to Christmas Eve 2017 were down 2.9% year on year.

It was a similarly bleak picture for Marks & Spencer, which saw both clothing and food sales drop during the key trading quarter. Interestingly, the retailer chose not to take part in Black Friday last year, stating they that believed it was the right thing to do for their price integrity.

How can you learn the lessons from last Christmas, and plan a stress-free, successful festive season for 2018?

Sales patterns

Given the importance of the affiliate channel to online revenue at this busy time of year, it’s important to analyse sales levels seen through the channel over October – December last year and identify potential trends. This can differ for many industries, and a day-to-day view should be taken over the end of November (from Black Friday and Cyber Monday) and in the lead up to Christmas Day (particularly the last postage day).

Having moved from being a one-day mega sale for many retailers, Black Friday is increasingly becoming two-week event, which kick-starts the Christmas period for many brands. A common issue we hear from clients when they come to us is that they experienced traffic overload in the previous Black Friday season; mitigate this risk by ensuring that your server is robust enough to handle heavy traffic.

If sales dropped unexpectedly last year, ensure you have exposure and activity planned in. Know your customers, check that your bestsellers are available, and ensure what they are looking for is provided at the right times. This applies to the product and stock levels too. Use your budget in line with this to maximise exposure and secure year on year growth.

Turning traffic into sales

Did you encounter a drop in conversion rate last Christmas? Many ecommerce sites see traffic levels drastically improve at this time of year, but the rate in which sales grow is often not in line with this. It’s time to start thinking about what you can do to make as much of that traffic convert as possible.

Is the traffic good quality? Take a look at your referral URLs and the top click active affiliates. Strong content pieces increase brand awareness and get good quality traffic to your website. Customers may not be at the purchasing stage of the customer journey here, but you can employ tools to keep them on your website and to encourage them to convert. Look into on-site overlays, basket abandonment emails, and re-targeting display campaigns if you don’t already have these in place. They will pay off over the festive season.

Be reactive

Admittedly, many retailers hold off deciding on Black Friday offers and levels of discount until they see what their competitors are doing. More and more retailers are even deciding not to partake in the event at all. Whatever your stance, it’s important to plan in as much as possible, but also to keep an eye on competitors, and have structures in place that make it simple for you to tweak offers as necessary.

This can be done fairly quickly and easily via the affiliate channel by offering exclusive discount codes, or higher rates of cashback. Booking in newsletter inclusions or on-site exposure with affiliates can be done in advance, and then the banner or content decided on later in the day. Tools like VoucherVu can help track competitor activity and send you daily updates, potentially saving you a lot of time at an already busy time of year.

Each year is different in terms of what problems are presented to online retailers in Q4, and no doubt 2018 will bring up new issues we can take learnings from, but we can at least ensure that we don’t make the same mistake twice. Look out for further Silverbean blog posts to help prepare you for the festive season in the coming weeks.

Take a look at our Christmas Planning Calendar to see which days you should be making the most of in the run-up to Christmas – you don’t have to partake in all, but check which ones are important to your business, and don’t get left behind in the rife competition of Q4.

If you wanted to download our calendar to pop into your own, be our guest!