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How to prepare for the next peak (yes, already!)

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The holiday season might be several months away, but it’s never too early to start preparing for the next peak.

Not only is the holiday season starting earlier each year; consumer expectations for a positive holiday shopping experience are higher than ever. Whether it’s fast shipping, a seamless returns process, or an enjoyable in-store experience, retailers need to start getting their ducks in a row if they’re going to retain customers beyond the holiday season.

Here is the perfect checklist to prep your store for peak season activity:

Fulfillment and logistics

Be ready to meet demand earlier

It used to be that the Black Friday shopping weekend heralded the true start of the holiday shopping season. But in the past few years, we’ve seen a gradual shift towards a longer, more spread-out festive season. 

Back in 2018, a consumer survey by Facebook found that 1 in 5 consumers had started their holiday shopping in October – long before most brands launch holiday promotions or have seasonal stock on the shelves. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen a massive acceleration in the shift towards an earlier holiday season. Amazon set a new tone for the retail sector as a whole by moving Prime Day from July to October in 2020, causing major retailers like Walmart, Target, and Bath Bed & Beyond to follow suit with holiday promotions. 

The results speak for themselves. The National Retail Federation found that 59% of holiday shoppers had started making purchases in early November, a 21% increase from a decade ago. And it’s safe to say that this year is going to be more of the same.

For merchants, this means prepping your holiday promotions and having seasonal inventory ready on your physical and digital shelves by the end of October, and ensuring that store associates are knowledgeable about products. This gives you a bit of a buffer against overstretched supply chains and other unforeseen delays. 

Reviewing your inventory 

Tight inventory management is essential during the holiday season. Congested supply chains and over-stretched parcel networks can make restocking popular SKUs much more challenging than at other parts of the year. To avoid stock-outs and missing out on lucrative selling opportunities, it’s important to start your inventory and warehouse planning several months out from the holiday season.

Now is the time to start looking at sales data from previous years to get a sense of what items are likely to be popular. Sales forecasting is never an exact science, so it’s always better to overestimate rather than underestimate. 

It’s also important to re-assess your storage strategy and start planning for how and where you’re going to store your seasonal inventory. If you have multiple warehouses, it’s costly and inefficient to duplicate an entire range of SKUs across locations. Instead, look for patterns in different customer hubs so your facilities can take a localized approach to inventory management.

Review your holiday shipping strategy

Shipping grows more complex (and expensive) during the festive time of year. But 2021 is easily going to take the cake as the most difficult holiday season yet.

Why? Because technically speaking, peak season has already begun. Most major parcel carriers have been operating at peak capacity since the middle of 2020. This has led to a pile-on of surcharges, with more likely to come later in the year. 

FedEx added new surcharges last month affecting residential delivery and Ground Economy services, among others. The latest round of surcharges recently announced by UPS has caused a stir, with new tariffs on customers shipping over 25,000 packages per week coming into effect on October 31st.

With major carriers already so stretched, merchants cannot expect to find extra capacity at the last minute. There’s little incentive for carriers to chase extra volume, even from long-running business relationships. Merchants should be prepared to not only swallow extra fees but also open discussions with regional carriers to help boost their bandwidth.

Moreover, an earlier holiday season means that your customer’s shipping needs are going to be quite different from previous years. If consumers are purchasing gifts as early as October, expensive expedited shipping is unlikely to fit their needs. Instead, consider augmenting your shipping options with slower, cheaper economy options that help lessen the pressure on your fulfillment network.

Streamline your returns management

Handling returns is an inevitable part of being a retailer, and consumers have bigger expectations than ever about the quality of their returns experience. 72% of consumers expect a refund within 5 days of returning an item, while 52% say that they’ve abandoned an online purchase due to fears of a difficult returns process.

It’s easy enough to deliver a positive returns experience during the main part of the year, where returns tend to be more spread out. But during the holiday season, your brand has to be able to handle a high volume of returns within a very condensed period. 

‘National Returns Day’ – the day in January with the highest number of returned items –  is something of an urban legend within logistics. UPS estimates that it will handle 8.75 million returns during the week of Jan. 4, 2021 – a 23% rise from the highest volume return period in the 2019 peak season.

If your business is unable to process returns promptly during the holiday season, this will result in thousands of dollars of revenue disappearing through lost exchange and cross-selling opportunities. This is why it’s so important to have a well-oiled reverse logistics strategy that enables quick turnarounds from return processing to resale. 

Utilizing a returns management tool such as Happy Returns or Loop will enable you to process returns much more quickly via advanced automation, as well as facilitating one-click exchanges for other sizes/colors to save you from losing valuable revenue.

Your digital storefront

Give your website a health check

You should think about your ecommerce store in the same way you think about a person; it’s a good idea to get a physical every so often to make sure you’re still in good shape. 

Amongst the busyness of the holiday season, the last thing you want is to have a critical piece of infrastructure fail or experience serious teething issues. This could cause your cart abandonment rates to skyrocket – right in the middle of the most profitable part of the year.

Now is the time to ensure that you’re offering customers a seamless shopping experience by checking the following:

  • Site speed (a loading time of three seconds or less)
  • Checkout process
  • Payment portal
  • Shipping options display
  • Post-purchase communications i.e. emails or SMS
  • Returns portal

It’s a good idea to run a test order through your ecommerce store so that you can put yourself in the same position as your customer during each stage of the shopping journey. You can find out how to do that here.

Proofread your FAQs

Every ecommerce website should have an FAQ page, but there’s a lot that separates a great FAQ page from an average one. 

During the holiday season, customers are more likely than ever to shop with new retailers. According to McKinsey research, only 12% of consumers said they planned to shop with the same brands during the 2020 holiday season. Given that we’re still in such an unfamiliar retail landscape, we can expect this experimentation to continue in 2021.

If you’re experiencing an influx of new customers, this means that your FAQs are going to be consulted a lot more regularly. This is one of the first pages that new site visitors are likely to look for, so your FAQs must make a positive impression. 

An FAQ page should be easy for visitors to find and allow for seamless navigation between different topics, such as ‘shipping’ or ‘returns’ so that they don’t have to scroll through an endless list of questions. 

Make sure that you’re using straightforward language that doesn’t allow for confusion or misinterpretation, as this is an easy way to lose prospective customers. If you plan on making changes to any policies during the holiday season, such as lengthening return windows, make sure this is clearly stated along with the period this is valid for. 

But most of all, you need to make sure that your FAQs really are FAQs. Does your page contain what customers are asking about, or what you think customers are asking about? It’s important to maintain a strong line with your customer care team, who can identify key trends in customer inquiries that may warrant their own FAQs. 

Optimizing your product pages for SEO

Competition in ecommerce is fierce at any time of the year, but the holiday season will kick this up a notch. When merchants stock similar or even the same seasonal products, it’s vital that you’re the first brand on their radar.

In ecommerce, every shopping journey starts with a search term. According to Search Engine Journal, the coveted first spot on Google has an average CTR of 28.5%, while the second and third positions fall sharply to a CTR of 15% and 11% click-through rate respectively.

The message is clear. You need to be one of the first few sites to pop up – or you won’t be on consumers’ radars at all. 

This is why now is the perfect time to begin optimizing your product pages for key search terms. Product descriptions are the perfect place to work in long-tail keywords and LSI (Latent Semantic Indexing) keywords that help to push your pages up the search results.

In addition to text, you need to make sure that your product photography is up to scratch. Images should be high-resolution and show a product or garment from multiple angles to assist with purchasing decisions. For items with size variants, make sure you include full dimensions and sizing charts.

Your physical storefront

Prepare your stores for increased foot traffic

With vaccinations rolling out at a steady pace and in-store restrictions coming to an end, the 2021 holiday season is set to see a massive boost in brick-and-mortar shopping. 

According to NPD, in-store sales for the week ending June 12th were $1.7 billion higher than the same period in 2020. While this is partly in response to pent-up demand, there’s no doubt that the upcoming holiday season will involve much higher volumes of in-store sales than last year.

For retailers who’ve pivoted to using retail stores as an extra fulfillment location, you’ll need to think very carefully about whether this is compatible with busier in-store shopping activities. For example, it’s not sustainable for store associates fulfilling online holiday orders to compete with in-store customers to secure products off the shelves. This can result in artificial stock shortages, as well as negatively impacting the in-store experience.

If you want to continue using in-store fulfillment, now is a good time to set up a designated area away from the shop floor to store in-demand seasonal SKUs for online orders. This makes fulfillment far more efficient and keeps your staff from adding friction to the in-store customer experience.

Streamline your BOPIS and curbside pick-up strategies

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many brick and mortar retailers to embrace O2O (online-to-offline) retail strategies such as BOPIS and curbside pick-up. It’s a decision that’s proven popular with consumers; according to Invespcro, 67% of consumers in the US have used BOPIS in the past six months, while 50% of consumers are now choosing retailers based on the availability of click and collect options.

During the holiday season, click and collect is understandably a desirable option for consumers. They get to browse and buy products from the comfort of their own home, rather than braving busy store locations where they might not be able to find the products they want on the shelf. In 2020, half of holiday shoppers said they planned on using curbside or contactless pickup during the holiday season – something we’re likely to see a repeat of in 2021.

For retailers who’ve gotten by with an ad-hoc approach to these services, this is unlikely to hold up under the pressure of higher order volumes during the holiday season. 

For example, not having designated pick-up points for click and collect orders could result in congestion and slow down the pick-up process. Instead, make sure that you have good signage to direct customers to the appropriate counter. Likewise, ensuring that confirmation emails have full instructions for curbside or in-store pick-up will go a long way towards eliminating inefficiencies during the in-person ‘last mile’.

Enable seamless cross-channel shopping behaviors

Regardless of whether your customers are shopping online or offline, there’s a high chance that they’re utilizing multiple channels to make purchases. A customer might find a product online, then come into a store location to test it in person and purchase. In the reverse, a customer might find a product in-store and choose to place an order for home delivery if it offers greater convenience. 

When customers are constantly switching channels, it’s your job to make the experience as seamless and consistent as possible. For example, giving customers the ability to ‘save’ items to a holiday wishlist makes it easy for them to show an in-store associate which products they’re interested in. 

On that note, it’s vital that your shopping app or website is optimized for mobile; nearly half of consumers report using a smartphone in-store to help them with researching products or looking up reviews. By making these online-to-offline interactions as frictionless as possible, consumers are much more likely to support your brand during the holiday season.

Get ready for peak season by partnering with Whiplash

When it comes to fulfillment, there’s one problem that outstrips most during the holiday season – scalability.

The holiday season is an intense and concentrated sales period that requires retailers to rapidly scale fulfillment in both directions. As order volumes rise, this requires more staff, more automation, and more storage space, which is costly and time-consuming to coordinate independently. When the holiday season is over, it’s easy to be left with bloated infrastructure or staffing levels that you no longer need.

You can avoid this by outsourcing fulfillment to an experienced nationwide provider like Whiplash. With 18 state-of-the-art facilities in strategic locations across the United States, Whiplash can get your brand holiday-ready with its proprietary ecommerce technology and advanced automation solutions for seamless fulfillment. Leverage our relationships with all major parcel carriers to access the best holiday shipping rates, keeping your costs down – and your customers satisfied.

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