Holiday bonus: add an extra-special feature to your site, and get customers to indulge

Holiday bonus: add an extra-special feature to your site, and get customers to indulgeWITH THE holidays just around the corner, now is a great time to add some special features to your website that will likely increase sales. There are four specific things you can do, according to the "2004 Shop.org/BizRate.com Online Holiday Mood Study."

The study found that the most successful website feature for driving sales during last year's holiday period was a gift-idea center (according to 56 percent of online retailers). The study, which polled 1,612 online buyers and more than 100 online retailers, also named these features as runners-up: a suggested-items page (32 percent), a clearance or sale page (32 percent), and a featured sale-item page (31 percent). Here's a closer look at how you can use each feature to benefit your e-business.

1. GIFT-IDEA CENTER: A gift-idea center allows consumers to browse for suggested gifts by gender, price or category. "When an internet-based seller presents me with information from a gift-idea center, it should increase my willingness to pay the e-tailer, since the company is solving a problem for me," says Robert Kauffman, a professor and e-commerce expert at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management in Minneapolis.

A gift-idea center paid off for Francoise Shirley, 39, who added one to her website in 2003. Sleepyheads.com Inc., the company she founded in 1999 with her husband, John Shirley, 39, sells pajamas and other types of sleepwear and accessories, and expects sales of $2.2 million this year.

The Hopkins, Minnesota, business has a gift-idea section where shoppers can choose gifts from categories such as "Bride-To-Be," "New Mom & Mom-To-Be" and "Boyfriend Breakup." Every month, the gift section, which can be accessed through a link on the home page, is updated with new items.

"So often on the web, people are looking for very specific things, so it is nice if you can accommodate them by having [a gift section] ready and available on your website," says Francoise.

Since adding the gift center, Sleepyheads.com's average order size has increased from $75 to about $100 to $125. But a gift-idea center won't necessarily work for all e-tailers, warns Kauffman: "It might be good for books, music CDs [and] baby gifts, wedding gifts, anniversary gifts and graduation gifts. But this approach may not work for computer-related equipment or clothing, and other kinds of products where there will still be uncertainty on the part of the gift-giver about whether the equipment is compatible or the clothing will fit, and so on."

2. SUGGESTED ITEMS: A suggested-items page lets you list multiple pieces of merchandise on a web page specifically for cross-selling or upselling opportunities after a consumer has selected an item. For example, if a shopper is buying a pair of pants, she is offered complementary items that may also interest her, such as a matching belt or a pair of shoes.

This popular feature helps drive online business because, like a gift-idea center, it "offers consumers help from the retailer about what to purchase," says Scott Silverman, executive director of Shop.org, a division of the National Retail Federation in Washington, DC. Silverman adds that this feature is important because it replicates the in-store experience--where a customer may be more likely to browse and be tempted by another product--online.

3. BARGAIN SHOPPING: Jennifer M. Varner, 32, founder of BellaBlu Maternity LLC, achieved great results by adding a clearance section to her website. The Cary, North Carolina, business, which sells maternity clothing and baby products such as diaper bags, turned I year old in March and is on track to grow sales to $1.5 million this year.

Last November, Varner launched a clearance section on her site after a few customers complained that they had to search through the site to find clearance items. Now, visitors can reach the clearance items through a link on her home page. Updated every day, it includes last season's items, excess inventory and other discounted products.

Varner says the clearance section was very popular during last year's holiday season, and allows her to reach a whole new customer base--shoppers looking for discounts.

4. FEATURED SALE ITEMS: According to Kauffman, clearance and featured sale-item pages "continue to be very successful--both on the websites of internet-based sellers and when news in HTML format is sent via e-mail to subscribers, letting them know about specific sale items they might like to buy."

Varner features sale items on her home page in conjunction with special sales, such as seasonal or swimsuit sales, as well as in a weekly e-mail newsletter sent to 7,000 customers. Says Varner, "When we send out a newsletter about sale items, sales on that day will increase from 10 percent to 15 percent." Adding these features to her site has paid off--about 10 percent of daily sales now come from sale and clearance items.

MELISSA CAMPANELLI is a marketing and technology writer in New York City

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