Thanksgiving and Black Friday sales alone added up to more than $14 billion last year, according to CNN Money and ComScore. Sales numbers for Cyber Monday were even more impressive: last year, merchants raked in a record-breaking $2.29 billion, a 16 percent increase over 2012. The increased revenue that these periods bring, however, can come at a price.

“From a revenue perspective, growth like this is almost always good for an e-commerce merchant,” says Kurt Heinrich, founder and chief product officer of eCommHub, an e-commerce automation platform. “But when rapid growth comes in the form of a spike – be it seasonal or a quick burst caused by a popular sale or event like Cyber Monday – many online retailers don’t anticipate the headaches that are created after the order.”

Heinrich says that those headaches can be caused by anything from keeping inventory levels up-to-date to routing the order to the right vendor and keeping customers informed of the order’s progress. And the adoption of technology solutions by eCommHub and others like ShipStation and SmartyStreets that automate these processes are on the rise, a sign of a maturing sector.

KontrolFreek, a maker of gaming console accessories, is one example of a retailer using these tools. Though KontrolFreek has a series of email sales promotions planned for Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday, Vice President of Marketing Matt Konigsmark says the team also spent the summer and fall projecting sales and building up inventory to be ready for the holiday rush. This year, they’re also testing out paid ad placements on Facebook and Twitter.

“We use a lot of triggered emails to communicate with our customers — from automated Welcome Series to Abandoned Cart emails to customer service,” he said.

Plan Early, Plan Often

Of course, most successful business owners know that automating the back-office is only part of the equation, and consumer-facing functions like marketing never slow down. This is certainly true for the 2014 holiday shopping season: According to Brooks Robinson, co-founder, and CEO of e-commerce marketing automation platform Springbot, the most successful retailers begin planning months in advance and rarely look at events like Black Friday or Cyber Monday in isolation.

“I think the key message that you see e-commerce stores do quite well is that they don’t think about Cyber Monday as one day,” he explained. “I think they see it as an overall engagement, and stores that do well in and around the holidays do more than just send out emails with a certain promotion. They do things like retargeting and casting a bigger shadow beyond just the traffic they received that day on Cyber Monday.”

“Casting a bigger shadow” might include setting up an automated, triggered email service that allows you to send multiple, personalized, segmented messages based on past purchase behavior, products abandoned or demographic information, he added.

Konigsmark says it’s important to expect the unexpected in high-traffic periods like Black Friday or Cyber Monday.

“We encountered several issues beyond our control last year,” he said. “It happens, but we spent this summer planning for similar scenarios, hiring additional staff, beefing up our website and generally getting ready. We spent the months leading up to the holidays to make sure our site and inventory were ready for an increase in visitors and sales. On the commerce side, we spent the summer making performance improvements to make it a better shopping experience for our customers. Then, in early fall, we froze development on our e-commerce platform to ensure that we’d have an optimal operating environment.”

User Experience Matters Too

As planning and marketing efforts have gotten more sophisticated, so have shoppers’ expectations. According to ShopVisible CEO Sean Cook, customers want a seamless shopping experience that allows them to research products ahead of time and purchase them without any challenges whatsoever. Retailers that want to successfully create that kind of experience will undoubtedly need to include mobile users in their plans.

“For online-only retailers, the rise of browsing on mobile devices will make it necessary to optimize the shopping experience regardless of the device being used,” Cook said. “We have seen mobile traffic increase by 2 percentage points this week alone, accounting for 21 percent of all site traffic. Retailers need to take the mobile shopping experience even more seriously this holiday season.”

With mobile accounting for nearly 40 percent of all online traffic last year, it’s certainly hard to ignore as we prepare for the 2014 shopping season. But it could very well hold the key to success for retailers who are really hoping to cash in on the shopping frenzy that is Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Robinson agrees:

“More and more online retailers have upgraded their sites to have responsive design, and so I think that a good story this year could be about how the stores really addressed the mobile buyer rather than just the mobile shopper.”

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