How to plan for ecommerce peaks and troughs in demand

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If someone asked you when the best times of year to sell online are, you’d probably tell them the holidays. But, when you’re going through a slow month, ramping up your inventory and marketing spend can be a difficult decision to make.

Thanks to the widespread use of the internet, social media and mobile commerce, customers can shop online at any time and in any place – whether that’s from the comfort of their beds, during a commute or even lounging by the pool on holiday. So the traditional retail peaks and troughs are less prevalent in ecommerce as people shopping behaviours move online.

As you collect more and more sales data and analytics from inside your business, and from partner platforms and marketplaces, you can start to better understand the peaks and troughs of your retail sector, and plan your inventory and marketing spend to maximize sales even during the quieter periods.

External factors that affect product sales during the year

Going through a period of slow sales is frustrating, especially when you haven’t knowingly made any changes to your online selling strategy.

Nowadays, the “worst times” of year to sell online tends to be subjective to each business and industry. It’s very much dependent a number of internal and external factors that you can either monitor and manage or engage with and control.

Here are five external factors that may be affecting the growth of your business:

1. Public holidays, seasons and the weather

We all know that the months leading up to Christmas are one of the best times of year to be selling online. People are in prime shopping mode and certain holidays, such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday, can have a big impact your annual sales figures.

According to Adobe Analytics, Black Friday shoppers spent $7.4 billion online in 2019, while Cyber Monday hit an all-time high with sales surpassing $9.2 billion.

See more: How to smash Black Friday with advice from 15 eCommerce experts

At the same time, the spring and summer months are traditionally thought to be slower for online retail sales, as people prefer to spend time outdoors in the sun.

Now though, thanks to the rise in mobile commerce and online retail holidays such as Amazon Prime Holiday, this trend is quickly becoming a thing of the past.

How do you make sense of a slow sales month?

When it comes to online retail, it may now be more useful to consider the impact that the daily weather can have on your overall product sales throughout the entire selling year.

Of course, this might seem like a complex process, but hear us out:

A recent two-year study found that online sales are generally lower on days with better weather, and that this trend is particularly pronounced at the weekends.

And that’s not all.

The same research also found that when weather data was used in sales forecasting models, sales forecasting errors fell by up to 50%, saving several hundred thousand euros.

Being able to plot weather data against your sales can provide a level of strategic insight that can help to identify the worst times of year (and the best) to sell online for your business, so that you can plan and prepare accordingly.

2. Critical success factors in online retail

Something that is likely to impact your sales all year round is whether or not your website conforms to the buying expectations of online shoppers so that your customers feel like they can trust your website enough to make a purchase.

Plenty of research has proved that there are a number of critical success factors in online retail. In fact, one study identified and prioritized a minimum set of website design characteristics over ten years ago – and these factors still ring true today:

Critical Success Factors in Online Retail

  • Accurate product/service delivery
  • Clear transaction policies
  • Simple & unambiguous purchase transaction
  • Ease of navigation and search
  • Quick loading times
  • Transaction privacy
  • Transaction safety
  • Online interactivity between buyer and seller

Other factors that may impact your annual sales figures include an accurate delivery system, personalization, an error-free path-to-purchase, a clear returns and refunds policy and easy accessibility to the products and services you sell.

Some of these elements have been backed up by recent industry reports:

In 2017, a worldwide survey of approximately 30,000 online shoppers found that 70% of respondents prioritize clear information about delivery charges before the purchase happens and 60% seek out a simple and reliable returns process.

Even if you do have a sizeable marketing budget to grow your business and sales, some public trends are beyond your control.

For example, an increase in technology use by your customers may have been built into your marketing strategy, but have you planned for how widespread social media use may impact the future of your business?

Celebrities, influencers and now even micro influencers, can advocate for certain products and causes, or decide to boycott a particular item or business practice, and in turn start trends that may affect your annual sales figures – for better or for worse.

At the same time, a news story about a certain industry or type of product has the capacity to spread like wildfire online. Think about how a number of fast fashion retailers have recently been called out for unsustainable and unethical processes.

How can you predict which future trends will impact your online sales in the year?

Well, you can’t. Not for sudden trends anyway. But you can be proactive.

Wherever possible, businesses should actively monitor and manage online opinion, whether to diffuse potential crises or for marketing and promotional purposes.

For instance, consider how green consumption is on the rise and the implications that this may have for your industry in the future. Are there any businesses already out there starting to disrupt the same market? How significant is the impact?

4. State of the economy

The state of the global economy will, at some point, affect your business and sales.

Market fluctuations that are fueled by politics, terrorism, wars and currency devaluation will slowly work their way down to the majority of businesses within the commercial sector.

Let’s take a look at how a manufacturer within an industry may be affected, and in turn affect hundreds of smaller and bigger companies operating alongside them.

As sales and profits decrease, the manufacturer may slow down or freeze its hiring process, not invest in anymore equipment, halt research and development and stop product rollouts.

These cost-saving initiatives will then spiral downwards and impact all the businesses that source from or sell to the manufacturer. The manufacturer may be forced to close some of its factories or discontinue poorly performing brands.

For smaller companies sourcing products to resell, another potential outcome is that the manufacturer may cut down on business costs by compromising on the quality and therefore the desirability of its products, which may damage the sales and reputation of the business using that manufacturer.

5. Laws and taxes

While not tied down to certain times of year, changes in the law of any countries that you sell products to can have a direct impact on your business if the service or product becomes highly regulated, or in some cases, banned.

One example of this is how cigarette manufacturers have been impacted since the big ban from smoking in public spaces and indoors. A more recent case is the government’s tirade against single use plastic and how this is disrupting multiple industries all at once.

It’s also worth keeping in mind the extra customs or import tax your global customers may have to pay to receive your items, and their willingness to do so.

What’s more, some countries have legislation in place that governs the internet.

In the United Kingdom, for example, there is a large amount of eCommerce-related legislation that is mostly based upon previous EU legislation.

One particular act, The UK Consumer Rights Act of 2015, is one of the biggest shake-ups to consumer law within a generation. The CRA affects all businesses – from goods and services to the tangible and intangible – and even sets out laws relating to the use of digital content.

Internal factors that affect product sales during the year

With so many external factors affecting sales growth, it’s pretty easy to get caught up in blaming things that are outside of your control, rather than looking inwards at your business strategy and your processes.

However, as we know, there is no ‘worst’ month to be selling online.

While some products will increase in demand at certain times of year, there are also a number of internal factors completely within your control that may be contributing to a slow month for your business or industry as a whole.

Here are five of them:

  • The type of products being sold
  • Your understanding of your customers
  • Your marketing strategy
  • Customer service
  • Technology and automation

1. The type of products being sold

Another factor to consider is the product itself.

You may find that certain items you sell peak at different times of the year, and you can use this data to inform your business and marketing strategies, rather than buying more stock in just because it happens to be Black Friday or a similar shopping holiday. 

As an example, let’s take a look at the keyword phrase “party dress” and its search popularity over the past five years, and compare it with “women’s fashion” – a far more generic term.

Google Trends

Here, you can see that online search intent for party dresses in the United Kingdom peaks every year at the end of September and starts tailing off by January, while the generic term “women’s fashion” remains at a consistent level every year.   

How can this be applied to a business strategy?

First, it can inform you of the particular months you need to buy or replenish your stock. Of course, it would be more accurate and effective to use the data from your own sales cycles, if you sell party dresses, rather than general search intent only.

Second, it can help to identify when to engage in marketing initiatives to increase the likelihood of even more sales during the peak online selling period for a product.

For example, let’s say Company X sold party dresses and knew that its customer base loved to read interviews with a variety of fashion blog influencers (i.e. content marketing).

To take advantage of the peak sales period, Company X would need to create the content and use relevant keywords and be be ready to publish by July and August to allow search engines enough time to crawl the content and rank it accordingly.

2. Your understanding of your customers

Do you have a firm understanding of your customers and have you completed sufficient market research to back up your future business decisions and selling strategies?

If not, then consider how this may be preventing you from increasing sales month on month.

A successful business model does not base itself on general statistics and external global trends. While these elements do have a role to play, a business seeking profitability is far more likely to turn to real customer data and analytics for strategic direction and decision-making.

Got hundreds of customers? Don’t panic. There’s no need to interview them all.

In fact, HubSpot suggests that just 15 in-depth strategic customer interviews can provide a business with enough data to start identifying common customer themes and help create a real persona to base your marketing strategies around.

Of course, the more customers you have, the more market research you should aim to complete, as you’ll likely have customers that share varying qualities, needs and challenges. This enables you to create highly targeted marketing campaigns that are much more likely to land better results for your business.

3. Your marketing strategy

Sales and marketing go hand in hand.

We can all agree that our overarching business goals, marketing strategy and individual marketing campaigns throughout the year will have an impact on our sales figures at certain times of year. 

On top of a data-driven understanding of your customers, a successful marketing strategy requires a unique brand positioning, effective communication, accurate pricing, and the selection of relevant distribution channels such as your blog, Instagram or online forums.

In other words:

If you have products that fulfill a clear need, pricing that attracts your audience, a unique positioning within your market so that you stand out and you promote your items where your customers are, then you’re likely to sell more, and in turn help your business to grow. 

What’s more, one of the benefits to online retail is that you can also tap into the digital footprint of your customers’ shopping history and tailor sales deals or personalized messages to segments of your audience, which increases the likelihood of more sales throughout the year.

4. Customer service

A positive customer service experience – online or offline – can have a huge impact on the growth and success of your business. By an equal measure, a negative customer experience can have the complete opposite effect. But we all know that right?

What you might be interested to know is that spending time responding to negative reviews can actually have more of an impact on the potential customers that are reading it and can even lead them into completing a purchase. 

By showcasing yourself in a positive way that positions your brand as one that cares about its customers, you demonstrate to other potential customers that should they run into any issues with their purchasing experience that they’ll be taken care of in the same way and this can lead to repurchases.

While it’s tempting to only spend your time replying to negative reviews as positive ones speak for themselves, addressing positive feedback in a personal way can also increase brand loyalty and can increase the likelihood of repeat sales. 

5. Technology and automation

Intelligent automation is having an unrivaled impact on levels of productivity, efficiency and value for businesses everywhere.

For example, using marketing systems enables you to present personalized offers to targeted customer groups, automating your selling process gives you more time to grow your business, and tracking facilities for shipments in transit can provide security and peace of mind should anything happen.

And that’s not even scratching the surface.

With all of the data and insights that you can glean from using multiple intelligent systems, such as inventory management software, you can quickly identify your product sales cycles and predict trends, enabling you to grow strategically and scale your business from the ground up. 

The more that your company embraces new technology, the better position you put the business in to achieve more sales and growth throughout the whole year.

Plus, if you’re selling in a highly saturated or competitive industry – and let’s face it, we all are – then you’ll need to accept and adopt new technologies to either keep up with the competition or to leapfrog over them. The choice is yours.

See more: 19 Powerful ways to use artificial intelligence in eCommerce

Use your product, sales and customer data to grow strategically

As you’ll know by now, there are simply no worst times of year to sell online.

Sure, there are peak periods for particular products, but there are no specific times of the year that online sales collectively all slowdown for. Today’s world is far too connected and far too switched on for that issue to be happening anymore.

But, if you can access your product and sales data, inventory and stock data and your customer data, then you will be in a much better position to think strategically and reach conclusions as to why you’re experiencing a period of slow sales growth.

And, most importantly, you’ll be able to identify what to do about it.