The devil, as any marketer can tell you, is in the details.

In this case, we’re talking about how you handle the holiday pre-season. If you’re a small retailer, the holiday pre-season can feel like a diabolical plot.  You might even feel like you are about to lose your mind!  And we haven’t even talked about the madness of Black Friday.

You have to figure out a way to compete with the ads from all the big box stores. You don’t have all their big bucks for your advertising budget. And rolling out promotions early may be a bit too much like making a deal with the devil.

During this time of year, customers can be wildly schizophrenic about all the holiday hoopla. On one hand, shoppers don’t want to see the specialness of the season destroyed by “too much, too soon”. More than 71% of customers are annoyed by the “Christmas Creep” that’s putting holiday sales on display earlier and earlier every year.

Yet more than 35% of shoppers will be done with their holiday buying by the end of November. Almost 20% are already done by the end of October! That means that you have to find a way to capture the interest of those early holiday shoppers. However, you don’t want to ruin your credibility with “bread and butter” customers. Your local community provides a revenue stream all year long. You don’t want to offend by pushing early holiday displays that seem transparent and insincere.

Handling all these fiendish-seeming tasks isn’t as hard as it seems. Avoid thin marketing tactics that seem insincere with these tips for holiday marketing.

Focus on the In-Store Customer Experience

This is really no different than what you should be doing all year long.  Now you have two distinct groups of customers coming through the doors. You have the regular crowd that probably isn’t ready to see the holiday promotions just yet. On the other hand, you have the early shoppers looking for holiday sales.

Give each group what they really want:

  • Hold back on your in-store holiday displays until it gets closer to Thanksgiving. Your regular customers will appreciate the reprieve from the Christmas Creep that’s taking over everywhere else.
  • Promote highly-visible sales that are designed to capture the interest of early holiday shoppers under “Fall Finales” or “Early-Winter Wins” with lots of giftable items that will easily keep between now and December.
  • Offer extended gift-receipts starting now — make items returnable for in-store exchanges or credit until the end of December. That will help nudge loose the wallets of those early shoppers who are afraid of buying someone the wrong item.
  • If you offer shipping, allow customers to purchase items now and schedule them for shipping at a later date of their choosing. That way you’re totally taking the hassle out of the holidays for the early birds!
  • If you must start your holiday displays now, start small and roll out your displays over time.
  • Give customers a free gift with any purchase over a certain dollar amount. You can get samples of your products out there or clear out old stock and create a feeling of hospitality and goodwill all at the same time.
  • Put out a book to collect email addresses for your holiday marketing campaign. This is one place it’s okay to show a hint of the holidays to come. A peppermint scented candle or a chocolate-covered pretzel in exchange for signing up never hurt anyone’s feelings.

Throw Early-Marketing Efforts Into Bringing Customers Back

Even your early holiday marketing should be invested with an eye toward the long game — you want to bring regular customers in an extra time or two during the holiday season to shop for gifts, and you want to try to convert as many seasonal shoppers into regulars as possible. Since a lot of marketing dollars will likely go toward commercial ads and in-store displays, finding inexpensive (or free) ways to advertise is critical.

Try some of these ideas:

  • Emails coupons good from Black Friday to Christmas Eve to everyone who signs up for the holiday marketing campaign — and make it attractive enough to bring people back through your door. A free ornament probably won’t lure in as many people as a coupon for 25% off a single item.
  • Make sure long-standing customers know they’re appreciated. Send out postcards or emails that offer a “loyalty” bonus discount off of all items already on sale.
  • Send out short gift-giving guides by email that focus around a specific type of recipient: mother, father, sister, brother, co-worker, boss, and so on, to get customers thinking about how your items will meet their gift-giving needs.
  • Hold sales focused around one of those types of recipients for the first 12 days of December — that may not only lure back early customers but also capture the attention of the 50% of procrastinators among the nation’s shoppers.
  • Offer a final countdown sale — let customers know that you plan to knock more off the price of holiday merchandise every day during the week leading up to Christmas Eve. That can create a sense of competition and excitement for a lot of deal shoppers and bring them back to explore your store.

Take any of these ideas and customize them to fit your particular market. It’s more important to focus on the concepts behind them: make the in-store experience special and use your marketing skills to bring customers back as often as possible before the holiday season is over by constantly offering something new and exciting.

Once you see past all the diabolical contradictions the holiday pre-season presents on its surface, you realize that it’s actually not so hard to meet the demands of both early and “traditional” holiday shoppers — and actually enjoy yourself in the process.

This post was originally published October 2017 and has been updated to be current in the new year.