“Oh, look,” you sigh, “another article lambasting me with what I ‘surely don’t already know’ about the 123.7 billion-dollar holiday ecommerce season ?” Yawn.
The “holiday season” has been old news for ages, even on retail’s freshest digital platforms. In fact, the entire Hallmark-card-esque industry around holiday shopping seems so wrung out of all possible novelty that it appears to incite far more stress than cheer. Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Boxing Day have become a virtual Hunger Games for both shoppers and retailers around the world.
Here’s the catch: retailers still heavily rely on the two big holiday months—November and December—for, often, up to 30% of their yearly revenue (according to the same stats from the U.S.-based National Retail Federation, this two-month blitz alone accounts for at least 20% of industry-wide annual revenue every year).
For online retailers, these numbers may be even higher, since consumers in all age groups and income brackets plan on making an average of at least 59% of their holiday purchases online, according to Deloitte.
We’ve got a rundown of what you should keep in mind for the next 6 wild weeks in the ecommerce jungle—especially if your customers are spread out across the globe.
Calibrate to the holiday shopping calendar, country by country
It goes without saying that different cultures celebrate different holidays. The “holiday season” phenomenon is commercial to its core; while it happens that several important Western holidays fall in the November-December zone, it’s important to keep in mind that most of the world isn’t exactly on the same festive schedule.
The sheer volume of Black Friday, Christmas, and Boxing Day sales over the past decade has turned these holidays’ rough two-month overlap period into a global holy grail for ecommerce—even in countries where none of these holidays are widely celebrated.
Retailers around the world haven’t missed any opportunities to capitalize on high web traffic during the end-of-year period, capitalizing on existing, lesser-known holidays as pretexts for sales.
A brief history of the world’s Hallmark holidays
Key dates in 2019
November 11th: Singles Day
“Singles Day” in China does actually have a history beyond super-sales. The date marks a celebration of solo riders—symbolized by the digits composing the date, 11/11—a kind of anti-Valentine’s Day, if you will, for those not in a relationship.
Invented by a group of single-and-proud Chinese university students in the early 1990s, Singles Day evolved into an occasion for young people to buy themselves gifts, celebrating their independence.
A holiday essentially centered on self-indulgence? In other words, the perfect storm for an ecommerce giant looking for an opportunity to push pre-holiday sales, without resorting to overused tactics—i.e. jumping on the Black Friday bandwagon, launching BOGO sales to encourage gift-giving, and the like.
No, 11/11 is all about the consumer.
Singles Day 2019 raked in record results
It turns out the client-centric strategy of Singles Day advertising—which, these days, comes not only from Alibaba but also from just about every other big Chinese retailer and their foreign counterparts with outlets in China—works, and it’s only working better as the holiday grows in age and popularity.
Last year, the Alibaba group alone (which operates several mega-platforms in China, including Taobao and Tmall) cashed in a record-smashing $30,8 billion USD on the 2018 edition of East Asia’s new favorite Hallmark holiday.
This number evidently doesn’t even include non-Alibaba retailers, such as competitors JD.com and Pinduoduo; collectively, it’s estimated that over $45 billion USD was spent online on 11/11/18. That’s over three times what Americans spent on last year’s Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined!
And the numbers continue to skyrocket. The Alibaba Group reported a 25% increase in 11/11 revenue in 2019, raking in a whopping $38 billion USD (the group had already pocketed the day’s first billion USD by only 68 seconds after midnight, according to TechCrunch).
November 29th-December 1st: Black Friday/Cyber Monday (BFCM) Weekend
Though Singles Day has continually surpassed BFCM by a longshot, in terms of sales in China, since its conception in 2009, the latter remains the West’s favorite commercial holiday. Despite its historical association with American Thanksgiving, Black Friday’s identity has been essentially diluted to that of a giant worldwide sale—hence its more recent pure-digital spin-off, Cyber Monday.
Perhaps in an attempt to counter the brutal consumerism of BCFM, American Express launched its first promotional campaign for “Small Business Saturday” in 2010, branding the Saturday between Black Friday and Cyber Monday as a chance for families to return to their local roots and “shop small,” rather than camping out in front of Best Buy or making a literal Excel spreadsheet to keep track of the sales you want to hit at midnight.
While Small Business Saturday remains in the financial shadow of its hyper-commercialized parents, BF and CM, it still can mean gains for, well, small (and small-ish) businesses—that is, among your USA clientèle.
December 12th: 12/12
Think it can’t get any more commercial than Black Friday or Singles’ Day? Think again.
Lazada, the Singapore-based South Asian filiary of Alibaba Group, is one of the most popular online marketplaces (think Amazon) in Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Following its Chinese sister marketplace, Alibaba.com’s, lead and launching its own hugely successful 11/11 deals, Lazada realized the potential for a commercial holiday with no real cultural basis—so decided to create its own.
In 2014, Lazada decided to capitalize on the next-best holiday season date—the “double 12,” December 12th—and turn it into the South/Southeast-Asia-centered version of China’s Singles’ Day.
The results have been substantial: by 2017, Lazada alone doubled its sales (Gross Merchandise Value/GMV) from the previous year, grossing over $250 million on this one double-down day.
Lazada isn’t the only Southeast Asian actor that’s cashed in on the double-digit phenomenon. Singaporean giants Shopee and Zalora have also hopped on the trend, contributing to what many deal- and coupon-aggregating sites now simply refer to as “online fever.”
Regardless of 12/12’s relative lack of significance outside its newly-acquired commercial importance in the region, you should look at it as a way to make up for any 11/11 traffic you may have missed among your APAC customers. The clock is ticking!
December 21st: Super Saturday
Also commonly known as “Panic Saturday,” this pre-Christmas event is even less a “holiday” than Black Friday or Singles Day, and even more a last-ditch opportunity for procrastinators to blow through their holiday savings.
Of course, retailers know how to play to this: consumer desperation is a pretty actionable condition when you’re just trying to get as much of your stock off the shelves as possible before the post-Christmas returns start coming in.
Consumer research shows that the amount of time between Christmas and the final Saturday before it (which, of course, varies year to year, since Christmas always falls on a different day of the week) drastically affects how much shoppers actually depend on last-chance sales to satisfy their gift-giving needs.
Customer Growth Partners’ Craig Johnson explained to Forbes how a Sunday Christmas is likely to put a damper on Super Saturday—with most buyers feeling like the day before Christmas is truly cutting it too close, and many businesses being closed for Christmas Eve.
This year, fate would have it that Christmas is on a Wednesday—leaving a full 3 days (for travel, wrapping, and focusing on other holiday logistics) for shoppers to siphon through Super Saturday purchases. This kind of tempered desperation could play largely in your favor as an ecommerce merchant, if you’re able to fulfill orders in 2 business days or fewer. The extra shipping costs may just be worth the likely high last-minute traffic.
December 26th: Boxing Day
The origins of the name “Boxing Day” remain debated throughout the U.K. and its former colonies—some claim it comes from the practice of giving servants boxed gifts on the day after Christmas in 18th- and 19th-century British households, while some others even trace it back to the Roman Empire.
Needless to say, the name of this Black Friday-esque holiday is of little importance, apart from its acquired significance in representing the many boxes that anglosphere shoppers plan on receiving in the days following it, once having taken advantage of the sales that Boxing Day is known for—and which, these days, often happen online.
Not only is Boxing Day an excellent time to get rid of excess merchandise you may not have been able to sell for the Christmas/Hanukkah/other various winter holiday set; it’s also celebrated in several countries where ecommerce reigns large, including the U.K., Australia, Canada, and Hong Kong.
Holiday heat map: where, and when, are sales skyrocketing?
Here’s some news: despite the fundamentally American nature of Black Friday—in both its origins (it is still, in the end, simply the day after Thanksgiving) and its hyper-consumerist reputation—it’s no longer a strictly American “holiday.”
In fact, even in the U.S., online Black Friday sales have been surpassed by those of its digital-only little sister, Cyber Monday. Elsewhere in the world, Black Friday is undeniably on the rise, with growth in interest rate around the “holiday” spiking thousands of percentage points in countries such as the U.K., South Africa, Turkey, and Italy.
But while Black Friday search frequency, recognition rate, and overall sales value have been increasing fairly steadily—in some cases, exponentially—worldwide, it still isn’t every country’s favorite e-commerce bonanza.
In China, Singles’ Day (unsurprisingly) brings down the house in terms of pretty much every metric—from major marketplaces’ site traffic, to consumer interest, to conversion rate, to total GMV/sales. Alibaba is no longer the only actor with a piece in the game, either: competitor marketplaces JD.com and Pinduoduo have each raked in tens of billions of USD over the past several years of 11/11 blasts.
Southeast Asia has also jumped on the 11/11 bandwagon, but 12/12 sales have been showing higher growth rates year-on-year—indicating a future boon for retailers in the region.
It’s checklist time: what should you be doing to scale your ecommerce business this holiday season?
There’s no room for denial: the holiday season is already upon us, even if we’re still two weeks away from American Thanksgiving. The staggering numbers from this week’s Singles Day in China seem indicative of high-gross potential around the world over the next month and a half—so even if you aren’t positioned on the Chinese market, or chose not to focus your energy on a Singles Day campaign, you are most definitely not too late to the party.
We’ve got four tips to help you and your international e-store stay on track with the rest of this year’s holiday shopping calendar.
1. Scale up your support.
Any e-retailer knows from experience that whether you’re selling sweaters, soap, or software, your customer support tickets are about to go through the roof this season.
Support-staff household name SaaS HelpScout has a thorough article on what client support teams—and their managers—need to keep in mind for the high-volume holiday season. Some of the advice—outsourcing, boosting the attention to detail in your onboarding process for new support heros, preparing responses to last year’s most frequent questions—is applicable to essentially any trade, industry, and business size.
But what if you have a particularly international clientèle? Especially for small-to-medium businesses, you may not have the means to outsource all of your customer support to local agencies on the ground in your foreign markets. How can you make sure that your own cherished support team doesn’t get lost in translation when customers from across the globe have issues?
Weglot is one of the many tools that can help you with preparing your support team for the international scene, and takes care of the ever-critical language element of your customer communication process. Here’s how you can translate your HelpScout docs with Weglot and best prepare your troops for an influx of tickets from the four corners of the world.
2. Double-check your checkout.
No matter what platform you use to run your ecommerce store, you’ll already have had to set up a payment system for your customers. If you have an international client base, it’s likely you’ve chosen a platform like Stripe, reputed for accepting highly localized payment methods such as AliPay and WeChat Pay—neither of which is particularly present outside the Chinese market in particular, but which both count over 500 million users within China.
No matter what payment system you’ve chosen to integrate, it’s never a bad idea to put yourself in the customer’s shoes and go through the entire payment process for each currency used in your store’s biggest markets.
Let’s say, for instance, that you’re selling from the U.S. Your default currency is USD, and your stats reveal that most of your purchases come from the U.S. and Mexico.
Try going through the checkout process as if you were:
- A U.S.-based customer browsing in English
- A U.S.-based customer browsing in Spanish
- AND a Mexico-based customer browsing in Spanish.
The first two situations will allow you to make sure that your U.S.-based customers can select their currency, no matter whether they are Spanish- or English-speaking; the second will allow you to verify if your store makes it easy to buy in Mexican pesos, and ensure that the checkout process is intuitive for your numerous Mexico-based clients.
3. Bigger shopping means bigger shipping.
You may have figured out that holiday season prep is primarily about scale: with a higher volume of traffic, you need to ready your store (and staff, if you have one) for correspondingly higher volumes of customer questions, payments to process, and orders to actually fulfill.
We’ve already gone over the first two, but let’s not forget that, technically, the most important part of seeing through a successful customer satisfaction strategy is delivering, literally.
Fortunately for smaller ecommerce merchants, the platform-ization of fulfillment logistics is in full swing. Apps like Easyship abound and can usually be directly integrated into your store, no matter what technology you use to host and deliver your site content.
Merry multilingualism to all ❄️
The proliferation of the “holiday shopping” phenomenon around the world has a huge impact on international ecommerce stores. Depending on where your biggest customer bases and target markets are located, you have to adapt…
- Your sales and discount calendar, depending on local holidays and shopping habits
- Your language of communication for promotional materials for each of these holidays
- Your support structure, including the language your docs and responses are available in
- Your checkout process, keeping in mind the language and currency of your customers
- …and your fulfillment logistics, to make sure your buyers across the board get their goodies in time for gift-giving (or self-gifting).
The common thread here? Making your store multilingual, from homepage to checkout, is an essential part of any holiday strategy.