With the arrival of cooler air, it's clear the holiday shopping season is right around the corner. In shops, malls, and downtowns, small retail businesses across the country are planning for their busiest time.

This year, holiday sales are predicted to rise 4.1 percent compared with 2013. But with only 26 days between Black Friday and Christmas, valuable shopping time will be at a premium. The National Retail Federation is also forecasting that 2014 e-commerce holiday sales will see a 9 to 12 percent uptick, so any delay in preparing for this year's--or next year's--holiday shopping season could quickly cause lost sales.

  1. Develop your holiday strategy early. Consumers can be fickle, so being nimble is important. An approach that worked in 2013 may not be right for 2014. Take time to analyze your business's previous holiday sales and replicate the strategies that worked, while modifying those that didn't.

    Create a marketing calendar and budget that lead into and cover the full holiday shopping season. Use special offers and other incentives to target first-time and returning customers, leveraging all appropriate channels to reach and draw in different audiences.
    Engage customers on social media by offering deals to the first 50 people who like a Facebook post or who retweet a comment about your business; hold customer-appreciation nights for small groups; reward customers who refer new customers.
  2. Prepare your business and staff. For holiday shoppers, 'tis the season for frequent bouts of panic. Help ease your customers' anxiety by emphasizing exceptional customer service. This may mean specific training sessions for your current staff or adding temporary help to meet a holiday rush.

    Equally important is the secondary front door to your business--your website and social media pages. Ensure your systems can handle increased traffic and check that your directory and search engine listings on Yelp, online YellowPages, and Google are up to date. Do they have the correct holiday hours, address, and phone information? Clean up your customer data for more accurate direct mail and email campaigns. Does your company have a social media presence (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest)? If not, consider creating a profile on the social networks your customers frequent.

    "The holiday shopping season can be stressful for both me and my customers," says Stephanie Rozanovich, owner of Trend Boutique in Cincinnati. "As a business owner, one easy way I de-stress the holidays is by making sure my inventory is full--particularly with the products that are consistently top-sellers. And because my customers, especially busy parents, appreciate the ease and convenience of ordering their gifts from my website, I make sure it is up-to-date with the latest sales and product information and that all the features are working flawlessly."
  3. Thank and retain existing customers. Customers love to be appreciated, especially those loyal to your business. Some simple ways to show how much their business means is through personalized email messages or invites to customer-appreciation activities. Social media and email are quick, effective (and often free) means of targeting loyal customers, enabling you to highlight holiday-themed contests, new services or merchandise, or return-customer holiday discounts.

    For more personal messages, printed holiday cards are still appreciated. In fact, according to the 2013 Deluxe Annual Holiday Shopping Survey, 86 percent of the participants said they would rather receive a traditional holiday card through the mail than get an e-card.

    "Despite the digital world we live in, people still love getting holiday cards in the mail," says Wendy Tatlock, product manager of events and special occasions at Deluxe. "So when you send these, don't forget to include a coupon for a special holiday product or service. You can also consider including a philanthropic component, like offering to make a donation to one or more charitable organizations (and encouraging your customers to do the same)."
  4. Attract new customers. It is always important to reach new customers using multiple avenues. This includes announcing special discounts and promotions via local newspaper ads, holiday circulars, and even postcards.

    Another approach is investing in search engine marketing (SEM) to better reach those customers who may be looking for your specific products or services.

    Partnering with other small businesses, local charities, and business organizations provides another avenue for engaging new customers during the holiday shopping season. You can even reach out to local reporters to share any unique or compelling stories about your business.
  5. Monitor results. Once the dust has settled, assess the outcomes of your holiday shopping strategy with an honest evaluation, remembering that your future approach isn't set in stone.

    Compare the weekly sales results for the current and previous years, both in-store and online. If there are differences, determine what accounted for them. Jot down a few new ideas for the coming year (but don't wait six months to do so).

    If you have any excess inventory, conduct a postholiday sale. Customers appreciate bargains at any time of the year. This is a great way to appease postholiday bargain hunters, create awareness among potential customers, and make room for new inventory.

The holidays can be stressful for everyone, particularly business owners. But preparing your small business for a successful and profitable holiday season doesn't have to be difficult:

  • Make sure you have a plan to maximize your holiday sales.
  • Start early, stay focused, and stick to the plan.
  • Prepare your business and staff for the holiday rush.
  • Create ways to attract and engage with current and new customers.
  • Set a date to review your postholiday results.

With a little extra effort, you can see big payoffs that will let you end the year on a high note.