The holiday selling season, in particular Black Friday, is the apogee in most small retailers' annual lives, when they can often book three to five times the rate of sales they do during less busy times of the year.
This year, forecasts suggest a modest rebound in holiday spending, as consumers continue to emerge from years of frugality brought about the financial crisis, lost jobs and depressed wages.
While holiday sales are expected to increase a modest 4 percent to $617 billion year over year for 2014, according to the National Retail Federation, online sales are expected to increase about 11 percent to more than $100 billion for the same time period.
We checked in with five of our fast-growing, Inc. 5000 retailing companies to find out about what they're doing to reel in as much business as possible.
While traditional sales tactics, such as temporary hiring and beefing up customer service, played an important role, we found some other things that surprised us--namely that social media and mobile pull an inordinate amount of weight this year.
Here's a snapshot of Black Friday selling plans. We'll also check back in with the companies below to see how their plans shaped up.
The online women's lingerie retailer experiences sales increases of up to five times average on days like Black Friday and Cyber Monday. The three-year-old company, founded by Morgan Hermand-Waiche has 55 full time employees.
Social Media: Adore Me has a multi-pronged approach on social media. It has hundreds of thousands of followers on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter, where it uses games and quizzes and contests to stoke consumer interest. That includes things like an opportunity to win $300 for shopping on the Website for the best photos posted to Instagram and Pinterest.
Adore Me also reaches out to fashion bloggers who post on YouTube and on more traditional written blogs by sending them their products for review.
The company is "leveraging social media to stay top of mind with our shoppers in the weeks leading up to Black Friday," says Sharon Klepka, director of business and brand development for Adore Me.
Online Strategy: Adore Me is making its website for Black Friday all about the holiday sales, with special holiday-themed photo shoots and special banner ads directing shoppers to specials.
Mobile Strategy: More than fifty percent of Adore Me's sales happen through smart phones and other mobile devices, so it has special promotions exclusive to the mobile channel, such as special gifts with purchase. The company also creates its own line of lingerie, introducing 30 to 40 new items annually. Mobile users get access to the new items a day earlier than those who log onto the site via desktop.
Staffing: It's hiring just one intern to help fill orders during the holiday rush.
Smacktom has learned to deal with something of a delayed reaction for the way it sells its products online, especially during the holidays. The company, founded by Neja Gajwani, sells accessories for primary sale items like computers and smart phones and other digital items. Its biggest transaction time is just after the holidays when people want earphones, chargers, cases and the like for the electronic gifts they got. So prime selling season can extend well into February.
Staffing and Customer Service: Smacktom is doubling its customer service to six workers from three for product questions, shipping inquiries and the like by phone and email. After purchases, a follow up phone call is made to ensure satisfaction.
Social Media Strategy: Smacktom doesn't do much with social media.
Online Strategy: As Smacktom sells primarily through third party sites including eBay, Newegg, and Sears.com, the focus is on price, and making all those ad words really stand out. One tactic is to make sure free shipping is highlighted, a lot. But Smacktom examines all its old campaigns to see which ones resulted in the best sales, and develops algorithms based on reformulating those words.
"We want to make sure we are portrayed in the best light possible, and that on search engines and sites like Sears.com we are what buyers are looking for, and that we are at the top of that list," says Gajwani.
Smacktom also has its fingers on the pulse of daily deals with its third party sites. So if one of the sites is promoting a new iPhone case, Smacktom is sure to suggest a screen protector to go along with it.
Mobile sales: They can account for 40 percent of Smacktom's revenue, so it's incredibly important to the company, especially during the holidays. It additionally makes heavy use of responsive design, which enables clear product shots and descriptions on small screens.
Rave lights, glowing glove sets and light sticks, as well as apparel for the cool rave scene are Emazing Lights' bread and butter, especially during the holidays when sales can triple. It sells these products primarily online, but also has two dedicated retail locations in both Northern and Southern California, as well as a licensing arrangement with three other brick-and-mortar locations in Florida and Texas.
Staffing: The 46-employee company will add up to 8 additional temporary workers to do everything from helping ship orders in the warehouse to answering customer service queries by phone, email and live chat.
It will host Friday night dance parties at its California retail stores throughout the holidays to build awareness of its brand.
Online strategy: To handle the increased sales volume, Emazing Lights is adding more servers and more RAM to existing computers. It's redesigned the company website with a special Black Friday landing page, promoting short-term sales. "This lets people know what is coming up for Black Friday beforehand, to build up anticipation," says company founder Brian Lim.
Social Media Strategy: With no budget for traditional marketing, Emazing Lights grew its business exclusively through social media, Lim says. That continues today, and throughout the holiday season on Facebook and Instagram, where the company has close to 1 million and 50,000 followers, respectively. Although Lim says it's unclear how much social media contributes to sales, it's critical for awareness. For the holidays, it runs promotions and contests on both.
Mobile Strategy: About half of the company's business occurs through mobile commerce, so it's particularly critical to the Emazing Lights on Black Friday and for the remainder of the year. It's foresworn responsive design, popular with other retailers, and instead has a dedicated mobile look, plus its own app.
"It really makes it simple for fans to see our content, whether its our blog or social media content or top videos [featuring our products], all in one place," Lim says.
Founded by Cyriac Roeding, Shopkick's app is all about helping shoppers find the best deals at favorite stores. So its holiday strategy normally starts in early November and lasts all the way through New Year's Day. In early November, app usage can triple. And in the thick of the holiday shopping season, it can spike to 10 times normal levels.
Traditional media: Shopkick is frequently mentioned in the top 50 lists for shopping apps, but it still depends on articles and blogs to continue getting the word out. It also depends on the individual retailers to promote the app on websites, through blogs, and via email blasts to customer lists.
Social media: The app has hundreds of thousands of followers on Facebook and Instagram, where it does a countdown to Black Friday with new, featured deals and the ability to earn "kicks" or credits toward more shopping discounts. Users have to check in every day, though, to find offers exclusively for them. It runs holiday contests on Instagram for more shopping credits for the coolest photographs.
Mobile Strategy: Since the company is based on an app, it's all about mobile for Shopkick. It also produces Beacon technology hardware, that uses shortwave radio bursts to alert users to relevant sales in stores, which it distributes to 10,000 retail locations. The technology will also remind customers of items in which they've expressed interest in the past when customers walk by stores that carry the products. "Mobile strategy is the only thing that matters to Shopkick, it is all about mobile," says Alexis Rask, the chief revenue officer for Shopkick.
It's hard not to love a company with an edgy name like Dolls Kill, and the purveyor of iconoclastic women's wear has a dedicated following of hundreds of thousands of fashion-forward ladies who amp up sales to 10 times normal on Black Friday. The store, founded by Bobby Farahi, has a warehouse, but no bricks and mortar presence.
Social Media: Leveraging Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram are core to how Dolls Kill sells to maximum effect during holidays. Its big holiday contest, called Be A Doll encourages women from around the world to submit their best photos via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram using the hastag #Dollskill. The winner, announced on New Year's Day, is flown to San Francisco for a photo shoot and the chance to raid the company's warehouse for whatever items she wants.
Mobile Strategy: Dolls Kill is expecting 2014 to be the year that mobile overtakes desktop sales. "We tailor the mobile experience as much as possible to be mobile friendly and allow the girls to browse," says Greg Forst, marketing manager for the company, who adds that content is designed specifically for mobile devices.
Non-Traditional Online Strategy: To whip customers into a buying frenzy, Dolls Kill shutters its site for about six hours prior to Black Friday. That's right, the site goes black as the design team loads images of all the hot new sales items onto the company servers. All that's visible is a countdown clock. "This suspense culminates when we finally open the digital doors and the masses rush in," Forst says.