Holiday Planning That Yields Big Returns

The holiday season is the most lucrative time of year for many small businesses, and taking care of details in advance can go a long way toward increasing profits. There's a lot more to good planning than selecting a holiday card design.

Brian Backus, the CEO ("king") of Kidlandia, said the holiday season accounts for 80% of annual revenues, so he makes sure to add customer service lines and support. His company makes personalized learning gifts for children, and he sets an early cut-off date for guaranteed Christmas delivery.

"There is nothing worse than a customer upset that a gift didn't arrive in time for Christmas," Backus said.

Use the holidays creatively

Your business' goods and services may have very unique relevance for holiday activities.

Long Haul Films, based in Boston, repackages some its short documentary and music video services to allow customers to make memorable gifts for their loved ones. "It's a good time of year to think about possible new, limited edition service offerings that may only be available at holiday time," said Melissa Dowler, the film company's cofounder.

Divas in Defense, a company specializing in self-defense for women and girls, offers free classes to help women watch out for crime as they do their holiday shopping. The company, with outlets in Florida, Georgia, and Kentucky, also hosts 12 "Diva Days" for giving away free products to 12 women during the 12 days leading to Christmas.

Reach out to customers

Many business owners suggest being proactive in anticipating particular seasonal or holiday needs of clients, and communicate those via email, calls, or snail mail. The point is to stay engaged with customers, said Grant Harris, owner of the style consultant firm Image Granted, based in Washington, D.C. "For example, if your client will be traveling during the holidays, you can provide a list of high quality shopping areas and/or boutiques where you know they will find something they like."

Dan Nainan, a professional comedian, has a busy season performing for corporate holiday parties in part because of his pre-holiday planning. A few months before the season he contacts the hundreds of clients he's worked for in the past, and he checks in with a list of event planners.

Non-retail businesses can also use a trick from the retail playbook: gift certificates and coupons. "Last year we started selling 'Divas Bucks' as gift certificates and we earned 270% more business in 30 days," said Cole Parker, vice president and chief operating officer of Divas in Defense.

Tips for online retailers

Preparing inventory, shipping supplies, and customer service support are just a few of the necessary tasks online stores should consider. Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving, is typically a huge day for online retailers, many of whom offer specials just for that day.

Other ideas to consider:

Offer free shipping. Or, you can offer a free gift with purchase. Either option is great for getting bargain-hunters to buy. For more great tips on free shipping, check out this Yahoo! Store Blog post.

Emphasize your "order by" date. Post this date prominently on the site, across product pages, and in the shipping options section. You don't want to disappoint shoppers who need gifts in a timely manner.

Tell your customers what to buy. If specific products are selling really well, call them out! Display the most popular and profit-generating merchandise in prominent places. Use phrases like "top-selling" or "latest hit" to generate some excitement around the products.

Hire enough help. Fulfilling holiday orders can be labor-intensive, and hiring seasonal workers takes time. Read this article for more great tips.

Finally, make sure to take good notes and track your observations about what?s working well, so you can get a jump on making the most of holidays in 2012.

More holiday-planning resources

Successful merchants share their planning strategies:

Planning for the Holidays in Your Online StoreA panel of experts share data to help plan online marketing campaigns that maximize sales during the holiday season

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