What is a Flash Sale? A Step-By-Step Guide to Make Your Sales Event a Success
Why do deals feel so good?
A fave retailer drops into your inbox with the subject line, “30% off everything + free shipping. 3 hours only!”
Is that an actual shiver of thrill you feel? Who knows — maybe you’ll think about it later. After you’ve snagged those items you’ve been eyeing forever (or at least for a few weeks).
A few mouse-clicks and you now can breathe easy: your order will arrive in 3-5 business days, and you’ve just been successfully targeted by a flash sale.
This article covers:
- What is a flash sale?
- Is a flash sale right for your business?
- 8 tips how to run a great flash sale
- Why segmentation makes your flash sales better
What is a flash sale?
A flash sale is when an online store offers substantial discounts or promotions for a very short period of time. The main goals of a flash sale strategy are to get online shoppers to impulse buy, to increase short-term sales, or to sell their surplus stock.
Flash sales are different from regular online sales in 3 specific ways:
- Discounts and promotions are notably better than what your business usually offers
- The time span of a flash sale is much shorter than your online store’s normal sale window
- A limited selection of products are on sale, often combined with reduced stock availability
Flash sales are especially popular on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, but they can attract online shoppers at any time. Some websites even offer “daily deal” flash sales as their main business model (though not without some drawbacks).
A short history of the “Daily Deal” website (and what it teaches you about how to time a flash sale)
Even though daily deal websites have been around since 2004, let’s talk about Groupon. Remember Groupon? Launched in 2008, they immediately became king of the daily deal mountain. Similar websites quickly multiplied (like discount bunnies) across the Internet.
And no wonder — from January 2010 through January 2011, Groupon’s U. S. revenue grew from $11 million to $89 million. That was their monthly revenue.
But by 2015, Groupon’s stock value had dropped by 86%. Many other daily deal flash websites shared in Groupon’s troubles: their reaction was to downsize, go out of business, or alter their flash sales model.
Consumers developed “daily deal fatigue” from the endless daily-deal email offers in their inboxes. Groupon’s stock price dropped by 86% in 4 years. As of August 26th, 2019, the stock sits at $2.36 (source: Business Insider)
People love flash sales — as long as the sales don’t happen 24-7. When flash sales are rare, one-time events, they give customers that extra jolt to act fast and buy now.
A lot of traditional online stores use special flash sale events as a sales strategy. Research shows that flash sale emails:
- Increase click-to-open rates for 74% of businesses
- Increase transaction rates for 67% of businesses
- Get satisfied customers to return and spend an average of 385% more
Those are some pretty drool-worthy email statistics. So how do businesses know if a flash sale will work for them?
Is a flash sale right for your business?
Anybody can run a flash sale online — but that doesn’t mean a flash sale is the right choice for your e-commerce business. There are pros and cons you need to consider before you decide to run a flash sale.
The pros of a flash sale
A successful flash sale can:
- Sell excess inventory: If you have a few great products that haven’t sold as well as you’d hoped, a flash sale can move that inventory to make room for new, in-demand products.
- Increase customer loyalty: A substantial flash sale discount is a way to pay it forward to your best customers. When customers have the warm fuzzies for your business, they’re more likely to buy from you in the future.
- Create FOMO: When you limit both your time window and stock, people who missed out may have grabby hands for your product even more. They definitely will want to sign up for your email list so that they don’t miss future promotions.
- Attract new customers: Flash sales can be a low-stakes way for people to try your products. If they’re satisfied, you just might get a brand-spanking-new loyal customer that will buy from you again and again (and again).
The cons of a flash sale
An unsuccessful flash sale can:
- Cut into your profits: How much profit do you keep from each product you sell? If that profit is cut by another 25%…30%…or even 50% — what will that spell out for your business’s short- and long-term sustainability?
- Attract the “wrong” type of customer: A flash sale can attract one-time buyers. Once they snag a deal, they vanish to never be seen again. If you want your flash sale to bring in new loyal customers, you want to watch out for this kind of marauding bargain “pirate.”
- Lead to disengaged customers: If you’re pushing a flash sale too hard (or too often) you risk flash sale fatigue. That’s when customers pull a Rhett Butler and basically say, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” to your flash sale marketing campaign.
- Hurt your reputation: A flash sale can hurt your reputation if you aren’t clear on how your sales event will be run…or if you fail to deliver great customer service afterward.
If you decide the benefits of a flash sale outweigh the potential risks, there are strategies you can use to give your flash sale a better chance of success.
8 tips on how to run a great flash sale
How can you make sure a flash sale has a real, positive, long-term impact on your business?
Here are 8 tips on how to run a great flash sale:
- The 4 benefits of a flash sale: Selling extra stock, slow season sales, visibility, and customer satisfaction
- Segment these 2 types of customers (your target market)
- How to time your flash sale (and why shorter is better)
- How to offer flash sale deals that go beyond your normal sales discount
- Prepare your shipping strategy in advance
- Use urgency to build hype for your flash sale
- The 3 things about your flash sale that customers need to know
- Don’t overdo flash sales
The 4 benefits of a flash sale: Selling extra stock, slow season sales, visibility, and customer satisfaction
There are 4 main benefits of a flash sale. Which one is the reason you want to run a flash sale?
Do you want to run a flash sale so you can:
- Sell your extra stock?
- Increase sales during your slow season?
- Create more visibility for your business?
- Boost customer loyalty and satisfaction?
Once you choose the benefit(s) you want to focus on, it’s time to decide which audience segment — your flash sale target market — you want to advertise your online sale too.
2. Segment these 2 types of customers (your target market)
Who can you market an online sale to? If I quickly count out all the possibilities on my fingers there’s…723 different audiences (give or take 10,000). But for a flash sale, you want to focus on just 2 types: loyal customers and potential customers.
Of those 2 possible audiences, you need to narrow it down to one. Who you target affects nearly every other decision you’ll make about your flash sale.
Ways to run a flash sale to target your loyal customers (as an “appreciation sale”)
- Keep it to insiders: To make sure your loyal customers have access to your sale, only send your flash sale email campaign to your subscription list or private fan group.
- Segment your list to avoid an awkward situation: Broadcast emails have their place, and you might think flash marketing fits nicely. But that’s not the case — don’t send your flash sale email campaign to the segment of your customer base who already purchased the items you’re massively discounting. They won’t be happy when they see other people can now get the same item for 50% less.
- Win back inactive customers: A flash sale is a great way to target your lapsed customers as part of a win-back email campaign. Remind them why they signed up for your emails in the first place.
- Target people who abandoned carts: 75% of people who add something to their online cart leave without paying you. A flash sale can convert some of those abandoned carts into completed sales.
As a small business owner myself, experience shows that some customers deeply believe “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” If they boldly ask for a discount, you might just give in.
Which products should you sell?
When you target current customers, choose a product that:
- Has high page views but a low conversion rate — simply put, a product that your customers look at but don’t buy
- You have excess stock and want to quickly move to make space for new products
Ways to run a flash sale to target potential customers (or to get more repeat customers)
- Popularity breeds popularity: Include an inventory countdown on your flash product page. When people see a product that is popular with other customers, that strongly influences people’s next decision — to buy.
- Bypass your email list: Your email list is already full of (hopefully) engaged customers. You want more customers. If you send an email campaign, keep it segmented to:
- Disengaged customers
- List members who haven’t made their first purchase yet
- Identify competitor’s customers: Do you have competitors that sell similar products? Market to these competitors’ social media audiences. In a study conducted by Curalate, they found that 3 out of every 4 consumers have purchased a product they’ve seen in a social media post.
- Run limited-time Google Ads: Trigger flash sale ads by the exact keywords associated with your flash sale products
People spend a daily average of nearly 2.5 hours on social networks and messaging. That’s a lot of opportunities to get your sale noticed. (source: GlobalWebIndex)
Which products should you sell?
If your goal is to get new customers, choose a product that:
- Is popular with a competitor’s customers, and flash sell it at a much lower price
- Is a signature item that your brand is known for (or that you want to be known for)
How to time your flash sale (and why shorter is better)
How long is a flash sale, anyway? Flash sales should be short by definition. It’s a flash sale, not a long-exposure sale.
If your sale runs over 24 hours, is it even a flash sale? (Source: Experian)
The shorter the flash sale, the greater the urgency to act quickly. A study from Experian found that:
- 2-hour flash sales result in email open rates 14% higher than average
- 3-hour flash sales result in email open rates 59% higher than average
When should you schedule your flash sale? Delve into your sales analytics and check:
- What day of the week do people purchase?
- What time of day do people purchase?
- When are your email open rates the highest?
4. How to offer flash sale deals that go beyond your normal discount
How do you find the sweet spot between a great discount that makes the “sold out” flag pop up on your product — and keeping so little of your profits that you may as well be Santa Claus?
You don’t want to undercut future sales — but unless you sell high-priced luxury goods, your basic discount just isn’t gonna cut it. These days, people often expect a discount just to sign up for a mailing list.
A good rule of thumb is to price your flash deals slightly higher than your lowest possible price — which is usually your Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals. Tweet this!!
When people can get up to 20% off just to type their email address and click “join,” why would they run to your website for a 10% off flash sale? Yawn.
5. Prepare your shipping strategy in advance
You don’t want to discount your product so much that you basically give it away for free. But there’s one thing you can give away that everyone likes: shipping.
Free shipping is a great incentive bonus for a flash sale because:
- 48% of customers will add additional items to their carts to qualify for free shipping
- Emails that offer free shipping have 72% more engagement
- Free shipping can generate 53.3% more revenue than those that don’t
Colorpop gives free shipping on orders over $30, so lots of customers will buy extra flash deal items to hit that minimum (like I did)
Nearly two-thirds of customers expect their orders to arrive in 1-3 days…and more than half of customers want you to offer overnight shipping.
A flash sale can be a double-edged sword: if your sale is wildly successful and you have oodles of orders, how can you balance what customers want with what you can actually do?
To keep your customers’ expectations realistic, make sure you:
- Make it clear up-front and in advance what your shipping turn-around time will be
- Have extra help to get your orders out fast
- Pre-pack products to make for quick order fulfillment
6. Use urgency to build hype for your flash sale
A great flash sale combines great merchandise with a great discount. But even the best flash deal will fail if no one knows about it.
You can use urgency to build up some flash sale hype.
When someone tells themselves, “I can buy this later,” they have no reason to buy from you now. A flash sale turns that thought on its head — they can’t buy it later.
“Opportunities are more desirable the more restricted they are. ” – Laura Brannon, social psychologist
The clever animation may grab your attention, but knowing that you only have until 3:00 pm to snag 30% off (and free shipping!) is what will get you to the J. Crew Factory website
5 ways to create urgency for your flash sale
- Be available on social: Use Facebook, Instagram, and other social media channels to actively engage with your customers throughout the flash sale. Be your own hypester!
- Remind your customers: When your sale enters its final hour, use your social channels to remind your fans they “only have _____ minutes left before this sale is over!”
- Use a countdown timer: Few things up the pressure like a race against the clock. Add countdown timers to your flash sale landing page and announcement emails.
- Keep your copy short: Concise copy is a marketing email best practice. Really push that time is of the essence with flash sale microcopy that doesn’t waste people’s time.
- Show the discount in your subject line: Emails with your discount in the subject line have an average conversion rate of just over 18% — compare that to the 3.8% conversion rate average for emails that don’t.
Many e-commerce and marketing platforms offer plugins that you can use to display countdown timers.
Check out these articles for in-depth tips to best market your flash sale:
- 10 Cyber Monday Email Examples to Inspire Your Next Campaign
- 20 Announcement Email Examples to Hype Your Product Launch
- Email Coupons: Types, Best Practices, and Everything Else You Need to Know
7. The 3 things about your flash sale that customers need to know
To be honest, would you enjoy being the victim of a bait-and-switch prank?
So why would your customers enjoy it? If there’s confusion about your flash sale, people will feel like they’ve been tricked. That leads to resentment. You may have made a sale…but you’ve probably lost a customer.
3 things to make sure customers know in advance about your flash sale are:
- What products are on sale? Make it explicit what is (and is not) part of your sale
- Is there a limited quantity? 45% of flash sale items sell out faster than expected. If there’s a limited quantity (but customers don’t know that), they’ll be hella frustrated when they show up to your website just to discover the product they want is already sold out.
- What is your return policy? If your return policy is clear, you’ll cut down on complaints due to buyer’s remorse in the days following your sale.
A flash sale is a deal between you and the customer. You offer a significantly reduced product and they agree to buy it with whatever limitations you attach. Don’t be afraid to stick to your guns and stand behind your TOS. But always try to keep the customer happy (within reason).
8. Don’t overdo flash sales
What happens if you get a little too generous with your flash sale frequency?
- Customers will wait for discounts: People will quickly learn that if they just hold off a bit longer, they’ll score deep discounts from you.
- Your reputation sinks: Too many sales erode the quality of your products in customers’ minds. Surely if your product was all that great, you wouldn’t have to have so many flash sales?
A great rule of thumb is to run a flash sale no more than three times a year so that your flash sales are truly special events.
Segmentation makes your flash sale (actually,
all your sales) better
What makes someone open your flash sale email? The best way to get that click is to send them email campaigns that they already know they want to read.
Different groups of people care about different things. So speak to them differently. With ActiveCampaign, any time you send an email you can easily target as many segments of your email list as you’d like.
Webpage visits? Personal interests? Products Purchased? Location? All are just a few of the many ways you can segment your lists in ActiveCampaign.
Email blasts just don’t interest today’s savvy customers — and if you automate your flash sale emails, your marketing campaigns get even better results. An automated email series will help build the hype you need to get noticed. Your emails will be more personalized…and more likely to get the sales you want from the audience you want.
A carefully run flash sale increases the number of happy customers and your bottom line. Flash sales are exciting if done right; they make your business stand out, attract new customers, and earn trust.
What is a Flash Sale in Ecommerce? 6 of Our Favorite Examples
Ecommerce stores use flash sales to boost revenue, generate brand awareness, take advantage of consumers’ “fear of missing out,” and compel shoppers to make impulse purchases.
Sound manipulative? Shoppers enjoy the benefit of getting a product they want at an irresitible price. Countless ecommerce retailers use this promotional pricing strategy to generate sales with plenty of success.
In this post, you’ll learn everything you need to know about creating profitable flash sales and see examples from real ecommerce brands.
What is a Flash Sale?
A flash sale is a discount or promotion that is offered for a limited time only. The goal of a flash sale is to foster a sense of urgency amongst shoppers to take advantage of a deal before the time is up. This sense of urgency should result in a large number of sales over a short period of time.
To illustrate the effect of a flash sale, let’s take a look at one example. Let’s say an artist who you only slightly like is playing in your city this weekend. Even though you only like that one song, you feel compelled to get dressed up and head over to the venue because your 10th favorite band is in town.
Or perhaps Trivia Night has rolled around once again, and even though you would rather stay home, you go out anyway because all your friends will be there and you don’t want to feel left out. What do these scenarios have in common? FOMO. The fear of missing out.
Flash sales capitalize on this psychological phenomenon to capture qualified leads and drive impulse buying decisions.
The best-known flash sale event of the year is Black Friday (and the following Cyber Monday). In 2021, Black Friday/Cyber Monday sales topped $14.04 Billion and $10.7 Billion respectively. For most businesses, this Mother-of-All-Flash-Sales is the highest grossing sales period of the entire year.
Flash sales aren’t just limited to Black Friday and Cyber Monday, though. An effectively implemented flash sale will massively boost sales, help clear out inventory, and bring additional customers to your site who may purchase non-sale items as well. To help you launch a successful flash sale, we’ve created a list of easy steps (and examples, too) to inspire your strategy.
How to Do a Flash Sale
1. Determine the goal of your sale.
A flash sale can accomplish many things besides just boosting sales and revenue. Do you want to clear out inventory to make room for next season’s products? Or perhaps you want to increase overall traffic to your site and generate hype over a new item? Understanding the goal of your flash sale is important when crafting your strategy, especially regarding the type of promotion or discount you want to offer.
2. Choose the right product for your ideal market.
When choosing the product(s) for your flash sale, you want to make sure your selection is aligned with your target audience and your goals. Although it might be tempting to run a flash sale on any old item you want to get rid of, it is important to make sure your offer provides value to the customer and encourages your target audience to join in on the sale.
3. Promote the sale ahead of time.
Launching a flash sale is like dropping a new song. You want to generate hype amongst your customer base ahead of time and get them rushing to your site as soon as the sale goes live. Consider using social media and email marketing to give your shoppers a heads up that a sweet deal is coming their way soon.
4. Optimize your wording.
Your discount needs to stand out in your customers’ feeds and inboxes, and choosing the right language for your offer can make or break your flash sale. For items under $100, a percent-off discount is more appealing to customers than money off. However, for items priced over $100, a set dollar-off amount tends to catch the eye.
$5 off a $50 shirt doesn’t sound quite as appealing as 10% off. Meanwhile, $50 off a $500 cookware set sounds a bit sweeter than 10% off. Both offers are the same, but how you say it matters. When planning your flash sale, consider the price and variety of your items when choosing the copy for your subject lines and captions.
5. Keep the time frame short.
The “limited-time” aspect of a flash sale is what really lights the fire in customers to hit that buy button. Missing out on a great deal can cause frustration and pain; we’ve all been there. The drive to avoid that pain is often enough to fill up carts. This is called anticipatory regret, and setting an urgent expiration date on your flash sale will trigger those feelings and boost sales. A 24h time frame is typically enough to drive purchases.
6. Check your inventory.
An effective flash sale requires effective preparation. You want to make sure you have the stock numbers to fulfill your expected amount of orders. Selling out of a product too early in your flash sale can leave customers with a negative experience with your brand. It’s important to make sure you have the merchandise on hand to send enough customers home happy while maintaining an air of exclusivity.
7. Prepare for shipping and delivery.
Online shoppers expect their items to ship as soon as possible — on the next day or even same day if possible. When designing your flash sale, make sure you are prepared ahead of time to fulfill and ship all your expected orders in a timely manner.
Customers are also far more likely to complete a purchase if free shipping is included, and may even increase their order to meet a minimum for a free shipping offer. If you can afford it, consider throwing in free shipping as part of your flash sale deal. Even if you need to dial back the discount or implement a cart minimum to trigger it, free shipping can influence your customers’ purchase decision.
Examples of Great Flash Sales
1. Abercrombie & Fitch
This is a textbook flash sale example that checks all the boxes. Abercrombie & Fitch is offering a double whammy of a discount: 50% off of items that are already on sale. That deal is sure to get customers excited, and the limited time frame pushes shoppers to check out now and avoid any future regret of missing out on such a deal.
Your flash sale doesn’t just have to be a direct monetary discount. Starbucks is offering a creative deal where customers get twice the stars by purchasing through their loyalty program for one day only. As opposed to a targeted flash sale on a specific product, this one is aimed at driving traffic and sales across the board. If you have a loyalty or rewards program for your customers, consider offering an alternative type of flash sale using points and rewards as the incentive.
As we mentioned earlier, the wording of your flash sale matters. Fender takes advantage of the fact that a dollar amount discount is most appealing for items over $100 by offering $50 off of guitars, as opposed to a percentage. Just like any good flash sale, it’s a limited-time-only deal.
Meta’s Oculus flash sale creates a sense of urgency by letting the customer know the discount is about to expire. This goes one step above simply stating the time frame of the deal, and in a personalized manner tells the customer that the time is now to take advantage of this discount. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to regret letting this deal slide by!
DoorDash’s DashMart is offering a classic flash sale: a percentage discount with an expiration date. What makes this flash sale stand out is the clean and concise design. The expiration date of the deal is front and center, paired with the offer and a simple, attractive image. This flash sale is also focused on a specific DashMart offering, not just all orders. If you have a new product or service, you might want to consider running a flash sale on that one offering to raise awareness and drive traffic.
6. Nordstrom Rack
Not only can flash sales boost sales, but they can help clear out inventory as well. Nordstrom Rack is strategically using a flash sale to make more space at the warehouse, and you can too. Nordstrom is offering a percentage off of already-on-sale clearance items, which is doubly exciting for customers. It’s wise of them to quantify this double discount as up to 75% off to drive the deal home. The bold red color of their banners, coupled with the limited time nature of the deal, maximizes the FOMO customers might feel if they fail to make a purchase.
Flash Sales Provide Value & Boost Revenue
Along with increased revenue, flash sales can help your ecommerce business get rid of excess inventory and stabilize your existing inventory. Most importantly, flash sales often drive a large audience to your site and incentivize viewers to purchase non-sale products, too. Use flash sales periodically, and both your revenue and customer base will grow to unprecedented numbers.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in April 2018 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
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