Retail is like football. Even though the game has four quarters of equal length, how a team plays in the final 15 minutes often has a lot more to do with the outcome. So too in retail sales, where the last 12 weeks of the year do more to determine the final score than any other timeframe on the calendar.
Retailers have struggled with that fact for years, and have gone to extraordinary measures to help stretch out the busy season, targeting early shoppers in October, bargain-hunters in January.
But for e-tailers, the final quarter is even shorter. The game ends just as the two-minute warning sounds for the brick-and-mortar retail world. And with less time to work with, e-commerce has to really run up the score while it can.
This year is no exception. Retailers around the country have their eyes on a big final weekend in less than two weeks. With Christmas on a Tuesday, retailers expect stores to be packed the previous Saturday and Sunday.
But for online stores, those last few days probably aren’t being counted on for a big finale.
Yes, most sites can still ship within 24 hours on many items. But even super-confident Web shoppers probably don’t want to cut it that short. Even if e-tailer X is right on its game and shipping company Y doesn’t miss a beat, what if there’s a snowstorm that shuts down airports and roadways for a day?
The shipping conundrum is not one easily solved. As an executive from Lycos Shopping said the other day, “e-commerce hasn’t invented a better way to deliver items.” She’s right. At least not yet, though many of us remain hopeful.
So online stores have tried to motivate shoppers to get clicking early. And by most measurements, the free shipping offers and other sales promotions have helped get people into online stores during the first two full weeks of the real shopping season.
But it takes a long time to get people to break a habit like waiting until the last minute. And that is where e-commerce falls short. Unless it can get people to become different shoppers — people who buy early and relax during the last few days before the holidays — it’s always going to miss out on a considerable portion of late sales.
My guess is that e-tailers won’t let the game end early without a fight. Here’s hoping smart ones focus, starting soon, on letting customers know that some gifts can be shipped quickly.
Perhaps downloaded music or software can’t be sold widely as gifts, but in a pinch, they will do for some.
Then there’s the after-Christmas rush. Consider it overtime, or a head start on next year — whichever you prefer. Retail stores have an advantage there, too.
Return something to a store and you can’t help but go past aisle after aisle of shiny, deeply discounted merchandise. You’re there already, so why not just pick up something different?
E-tail lacks the same advantage. The return button is, as it should be, somewhere out on the front page. Figuring out how to lock those would-be customers in while they’re hanging around the site is a potentially fertile field to plow.
All this means, of course, is that e-commerce has to work even harder just to stay even with real world retailers.
Don’t just give shoppers the option of shopping online. Don’t just give them good reasons to make the choice. Compel them every day and in any way imaginable to make the switch.
E-commerce can make the case. It’s just going to take all four quarters, and maybe a little overtime as well, to get the message out.
Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.