Did the Grinch have his way with 2016 holiday retail email?

Article by John Landsman CATEGORIES: eCommerce, Holiday/Event, Retail TAGS:

Our pre-Christmas retail email marketing update focused on the period between the day after Cyber Monday and December 10th. We looked at eight key retail brands, including: Amazon; four major full-line, multichannel retail brands (Macy’s, Target, Kohl’s and Walmart); and three major big-box specialists with substantial holiday gift assortments (Toys R Us, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Best Buy). Most increased their holiday email marketing activity and read rates from the comparable period a year ago, but many also met declining deliverability.

Today’s holiday wrap-up features these same brands and analyzes two distinct recent periods, comparing each with their year-ago counterparts:

  • The two weeks ending Christmas day
  • The week between December 26th and January 2nd

Spoiler Alert

If you thought you were seeing a great deal more email from these major brands this year, you were right. Most of these brands substantially increased their email campaign flow and/or the number of actual number of emails they deployed. And for all brands, except Amazon in the pre-Christmas period, the results reflect some combination of lower read rates and/or deteriorated inbox performance.

Two weeks ending Christmas Day

[table id=11 /]

The net-net:

  • Every brand except Toys ‘R Us implemented more email campaigns versus last year. Target led those increases, at 86%.
  • Every brand except Walmart increased the number of actual emails deployed. Dick’s led those increases, at 178%.
  • Only Amazon increased both its campaigns and volumes while also producing higher read rates and inbox performance.
  • Six of these eight brands did increase their read rates, despite increased volumes and declining deliverability.
  • Dick’s and Best Buy saw significant declines in both read rates and inbox performance.
  • Every brand but Amazon shows deteriorated year-over-year inbox placement performance.

One week post Christmas

Except for reduced volumes versus the Christmas peak, year-over-year trends and results for this period are similar to those we saw above.

[table id=12 /]

The net-net:

  • Only Amazon increased both its campaign and send volumes, and also improved read rates.
  • Year-over-year inbox performance deteriorated for every brand.
  • Dick’s doubled the number of campaigns mailed, and almost quadrupled their actual number of deployed emails.
    Their read rates declined by 21%, and their inbox delivery dropped by 17%.
  • Toys ‘R Us substantially reduced the number of campaigns it mailed, but increased its volume by over 60%.
    Read rates and inbox performance deteriorated.
  • Walmart and Kohl’s sent more campaigns, but with lower deployed volumes (suggesting more targeting).
    Their read rates improved by 18% and 4%, respectively.

Top performing emails pre-Christmas

Just below are examples of top performers for each brand, for the two week pre-Christmas period, ranked by read rate. Of the eight, most are promotional, and five reference some key product or service element. Note especially Target’s (third row) use of known browse behavior to direct a promotional offer. We’ve recently seen other retailers also using that tactic for subject line and targeting. It’s very effective.

[table id=13 /]

Top performing emails post-Christmas

Below are examples of top performers by brand in the post-Christmas week, also ranked by read rate. Given the usual intense post-holiday promotional tempo, it’s surprising that no more than four of these eight subject lines are explicitly promotional. Six reference specific merchandise, brands or categories. And note that Target (second row) again has a subject line announcing a message that appears to have leveraged customer browse or purchase behavior.

[table id=14 /]

Key Takeaway

This season’s mailing trends are typical. Retailers in the competitive pressure chamber of holiday want to do everything possible to maximize email message exposure.  However, this approach often leads to over-mailing and risks both deliverability and engagement. Email marketers need to understand the nature and cost of this trade-off, and work toward offsetting it via well-known strategies: message relevance, appropriate timing, and matching higher contact frequencies to the more engaged customer segments.