Even though it’s only early October, if your – or your clients – online retail business isn’t already gearing up for the holiday season, you may miss out on revenue. So what should you and your staff be doing now to ensure your ecommerce store is able to handle the extra holiday-related traffic?

Following are 16 tips from ecommerce and digital marketing pros on how to make sure your online store is prepared for Black Friday, Cyber Monday and the whole Christmas shopping season.

1.  Don’t make any drastic changes to navigation or layout right now

“Changes to the site’s user experience, functionality and code base should be avoided” in the run-up to the holiday season, says Kevin Labick, co-head, Digital Engagement, EPAM Systems, a provider of software product development services.

“Rolling out new functionalities or code changes can run serious risks – and can cause disruptions to customers’ shopping flow. If the site has drastically changed from what customers are accustomed to, it could cause confusion, frustration and lead to abandonment,” he explains. Instead, “focus efforts on optimizing site content, offers, products and marketing to enhance customer experience while avoiding disruptions.”

2. Make certain sites can handle the additional holiday traffic

“With online becoming the preferred method for holiday shopping, superior performance is essential and you should prepare in advance” for Cyber Monday and the holiday rush, says Labick. So it’s critical to test performance now.

“Test the speed and responsiveness for any given location, monitor content load times and ensure optimization, and confirm the site performs well across all platforms and devices,” Labick says. “Great marketing campaigns start the race by driving traffic, but it’s the site performance that brings the revenue at the finish line.”

3. Ensure your site is up to speed

“Research shows that 57 percent of visitors will abandon a page that takes three seconds or more to load,” says Justin Bougher, vice president of Product, SiteSpect, which provides testing and Web optimization services. “Test your site to make sure that you’re not driving off customers before they can find what they need,” he says.

“If your pages are graphics-heavy, include videos and other slow-loading content, make it your top priority in October and November to streamline pages and decrease page load time,” Bougher says. “The tolerance for slow-loading pages is low and performance expectations are high, especially during the stressful and hurried holiday season.”

“Every second customers spends waiting for a webpage to load is an opportunity for them to click over to your competition,” adds Rob Garf, vice president, Industry Strategy and Insights, Demandware, a ecommerce software platform provider. “One CIO told me that his developers painstaking fine-tuned their homepage so it would load a total of six-tenths of a second faster. Another retailer said that every 1 per cent increase in page load time equates to a 7 per cent reduction in conversion,” he explains. “Those are real numbers. Every second matters, especially during your busiest time of the year.”

4. Show that your site is secure

Security is top of mind for many online shoppers these days. So “installing a high-assurance SSL/TLS certificate on your website is a must,” says Flavio Martins, vice president of Operations, DigiCert. “Merchants should consider going that extra mile to get an EV SSL certificate that comes with the added trust indicators of a green address bar, green padlock and your company's name in the browser address bar,” he says. “Recent research shows that more than half of consumers surveyed recognize that the green padlock indicates added trust, and you need to give your customers reassurances that they can safely do business with you.”

5. Make sure people can shop from a variety of devices

“Customers will be using devices with a wide variety of screen sizes, [so] your website should work well [and look good] on everything from a large monitor to a small phone,” says Shawn McCabe, head of Development, Acro Media, a Web design and digital marketing agency. “Also, don't limit any functionality of your scaled down versions. If customers have to try and switch to the full version, your mobile site is totally pointless and probably making things worse.”

6. Optimise images and give your site a festive feel

“Holiday shopping can be emotional, so having great-looking product photos plays a big role in capturing the attention and hearts of shoppers,” says Jason Bay, senior product manager, Bonanza, an online marketplace. “If your product photos are low resolution or have poor lighting, maybe it's time to re-shoot them in time for the holidays.”

Similarly, “help your shoppers get into a festive mindset by updating your graphic design to include holiday-related themes,” he adds. “But don't just focus on your home page. Your product pages, email graphics, evergreen advertisements and social media sites can all be updated to show that your store is the perfect destination for holiday shopping.”

7. Showcase top-rated items – and offer gift suggestions

“To set your site up for [holiday] success, make review content more prominent during these heavily shopped days by displaying ‘top rated’ gift lists directly on the homepage,” says Matt Krebsbach, director of public and analyst relations, Bazaarvoice. “If your site currently does not incorporate consumer-generated content – ratings and reviews, questions and answers, and social posts – now is the time to collect that content for your products, especially those expected to be big holiday sellers,” he says.

“Implementing consumer-generated content on a company website not only serves as a fantastic way to increase online visibility, it also serves to attract new site visitors and convert those individuals into returning customers.”

Similarly, feature special holiday gift items on your home page or create a special category and page for customers to click on to get holiday gift ideas.

8. Alert customers to holiday shipping deadlines

“Everyone wants to get their holiday shopping done in July, but the reality is that most happens in December,” says Holly Ferro, owner, 5 Nerds Software. “Consumers will be looking for a clear alert letting them know if they can still order a product and have it delivered on time. If different products of yours have different shipping timelines, make sure those are specified.”

9. Offer live chat

“Consider adding live support to your site, [so] customers can ask you questions while still browsing and don't have to wait on hold,” says McCabe. “Your staff [can] also deal with multiple requests at once with chat, instead of just a single customer at a time over the phone.”

“Prepare your live chat operations to accommodate consumer expectations and changes in traffic during the holiday season,” says Tara Sporrer, vice president of Marketing and Sales Operations, Moxie, a provider of customer engagement solutions. “According to a global research study, 71 percent of chat customers expect resolution within 5 minutes.” So “staff up your chat operations, if [possible], and [give] your chat agents quick access to pertinent holiday information, such as product availability and shipping times. As we all know, one of the most frequently asked question is ‘How soon will it arrive?’”

10. Add a gift-wrap option

“If you don’t usually have a gift wrap option available during checkout, include it during this period as a complimentary service,” says Nandita Narayan, founder and director, DesignRaaga, an online store for home decor and accessories. “Also [provide] an option to include a personalized note. A personal note from the sender can make all the difference in making the experience even more special for the receiver, and your customers will love you for this.”

11. Provide hassle-free exchanges/returns

“[Sites] should minimize the obstacles that make gift buyers hesitate to buy online,” says Roy Erez, founder and CEO, Loop Commerce, an e-gifting service. “Loop research and data from its network of retailers found that one in four gift shoppers cited worrying about the hassle of returns as the most common reasons they hesitate to buy gifts online. To overcome this barrier for purchasing gifts for others at the holidays, provide hassle free exchanges to make it easy for customers to purchase without worrying about the exchange process.”

12. Make checking out easy

“Optimising your online checkout forms in time for the holiday season is paramount,” says Ben Harris, CEO, Decibel Insight, a Web optimisation solution provider. “We've found that when confronted with an unnecessarily complicated or lengthy form online, potential customers may simply abandon the checkout process out of frustration. After succeeding in the hard work of getting them there, losing conversions due to a [complicated or lengthy] form is far from ideal.”

13. Provide a self-service option so customers can check on shipping and get answers to FAQs

“Let customers help themselves with self-service portals,” says Laura Pappas, head of Retail e-Commerce Vertical Marketing, Zendesk, a cloud-based customer service software solution. “These portals can serve as a great resource for customers searching for answers. And, when used properly, can solve problems without involving a service rep. This saves employees valuable time and provides customers with the prompt service they desire. So do your customers and employees a favor and guide customers to self-service during the holidays.”