Here in the US, all signs point to winter: Daylight savings has just begun; specialty holiday drinks have been added to cafe menus; and several cities have already witnessed the first snowfall. And with the arrival of the chilly season comes preparation for the mad rush of holiday shoppers.

Although the holiday retail season is shorter this year, given fewer days than average between Thanksgiving and Christmas, consumer expectations of retailers during this holiday season are greater than ever. When it comes to online retail specifically, consumers seek out – and have come to expect – great deals and free shipping throughout their holiday gift hunt. In fact, Forrester’s Consumer Technographics® data shows that shipping cost is the most important factor in a consumer’s decision to purchase from a retail website (such as or

However, retailers must be smart about how they meet these elevated consumer expectations. As my colleague Sucharita Mulpuru notes in her recent online holiday retail forecast report and reinforces in her accompanying blog, free shipping is costly to retailers and compromises profit margins. Therefore, she advises that retailers limit their free shipping offers, particularly in the two weeks before Christmas when late shoppers are willing to pay for shipping in order to receive expedited delivery. According to Mulpuru, eBusiness professionals should “think of margins and lifetime value rather than the raw number of orders or new holiday customers.”

In order to prepare for the imminent holiday season, retailers need to keep a close eye on their customers as early consumer sentiment and anticipation evolve into intense buying behavior. By understanding the nuances in consumer attitudes and purchasing activity over the course of the season, retailers will be able to meet consumer needs while also optimizing profitability.