By LinkShare

Every October as Christmas baubles appear on the shelves alongside Halloween decorations you hear the familiar refrain of the high street shopper — “it can’t be time for Christmas already!”

And it’s true that sometimes it seems like the tinsel is coming out earlier each year. “Where does it end?” the shopper wails. “Christmas in Spring”?

It’s fair to say that Christmas will never be a hot topic in March — but for the retail sector, as we enter the Tweens, Christmas is making a comeback in the closing months of high summer. High street icon Selfridges has already opened its 2010 Christmas shop and where Selfridges leads, others will follow. Concerns of a double-dip recession persist in the media and this coupled with falling consumer confidence is leading to predictions that this year could be one of the most competitive Christmases yet. Against this backdrop, with the high street gearing up to the festive shopping period with in-store offers and incentives, online retailers could be missing a trick by delaying their own campaigns until the winter months.

Why it’s time to talk about Christmas online

In 2009 e-tail sales rose by 17 per cent year-on-year in the build-up to Christmas . For online merchants looking to capitalise on this growth and make sure that they’re the first port of call for consumers planning their Christmas lists, now is the time to plan their approach. Success is about more than just value for money; it’s taken for granted that consumers can make their pounds stretch further online. For true Christmas must-have status, a brand needs key product differentiators as well as offers and incentives that make them stand out from the crowd. Whether it’s a free make-up bag with a beauty product, or a 10 per cent discount on your second purchase, Christmas success is about finding creative ways to inspire sales without devaluing their brand or reputation.

Supporting offline strategies online

Many retailers have started to explore pre-Christmas promotion opportunities by increasing their web presence and developing tactical internet marketing strategies that entice consumers to their sites. One of the most cost effective, measurable and simple ways of doing this is through a credible and well-targeted affiliate marketing campaign. Performance marketing tactics like this offer reassuring levels of transparency and accountability at a time when retailers are looking to recover from the damages caused by the recession as quickly and efficiently as possible. Affiliate campaigns give retailers the opportunity to increase awareness and market share in the run up to Christmas, complementing and increasing the impact of their in-store activities through key online media platforms. Key tactics to consider include offering offers and promotions in line with high street activity as early as possible, making sure that all direct mail and in-store promotional material references the equivalent online offer as well. Not only will this help drive traffic to a retailer’s site, it boosts the visibility of the brand both on and offline.

Increased interest in the festive season also gives retailers the chance to create new eye-catching creative campaigns that can have a powerful impact on the consumer. The best success will be had by those brands that mirror the uplifting feel of Christmas cheer, encouraging consumer interest. Ultimately, a strategic presence in both worlds is vital in helping retailers to increase their sales, reach new consumer demographics and solidifying their relationships with current shoppers.

Campaigns are trackable from initiation throughout the campaign, allowing both advertisers and publishers to follow which shoppers are clicking through to their website and see which website they clicked through from. It is this type of information that helps marketers hone and refine every element of their campaign, especially at the competitive Christmas period, ensuring that offers are presented in the most timely fashion possible.

Partly as a result of this flexibility and accountability, affiliate marketing is going from strength to strength in the UK. According to the latest E-consultancy annual Buyers’ Guide, affiliate marketing is expected to drive an estimated £4.62 billion in online retail sales during 2010 in the UK alone. Consumers are carrying out more research online than ever before, seeking the opinions of friends and family members using social sites such as Facebook, as well as reading well-known industry blogs and forums, to make sure they’re buying the best product for their needs.

Preparing for Christmas in October

The recession gave birth to a nation full of online bargain hunters and the movement shows little sign of subsiding. Shoppers today are savvier than ever before; not only do they know what they want, they will take the time to find it at the best price and will even go as far to see which retailers are offering extra promotions such as free next day delivery services. Many will go on to talk about their experience online or even blog it in a relevant industry forum. With affiliate marketing widely touted as one of the biggest drivers of online sales, retailers need to think about the best ways they can harness this approach to better engage with their customer base in order to drive sales and capitalise on the Christmas frenzy.