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

illustration of a man standing at laptop computer placed on a high table. in the background are two pyramid-shaped mountains with a red flag on top.

[Updated post from July 8, 2021]

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

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 a flawless customer experience, retailers need to start getting their ducks in a row if they’re going to retain new customers beyond the holiday season.

Here is our checklist to help you to prepare for peak season activity:

Fulfillment and logistics

Be ready to meet customer demand earlier

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

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

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

During 2021 peak season, concerns over supply chain challenges and stockouts drove many consumers to get a headstart on their holiday shopping. According to ICSC forecasts, 75% of shoppers said they expected to start shopping earlier, with nearly half (45%) doing so to ensure desired products were available.

In 2022, it’s rising inflation that’s pushing earlier shopping habits, with many shoppers concerned that waiting too long to sort out seasonal gift giving will mean higher prices.

For retailers, this means you must be ready to meet customer demand much earlier than previous peak seasons. With some consumers already scouting around for holiday gifts, you need to plan ahead to make sure you have enough inventory to meet demand and prep for holiday promotions that drive sales. Start now, and you’ll be able to get ahead of the competition.

Reviewing your inventory 

Managing inventory levels is essential for a successful peak season. Congested supply chains and shipping deadlines can make restocking in-demand SKUs much more challenging than other parts of the year. To avoid stock-outs while demand continues, it’s important to start preparing for peak season now.

For example, looking at sales data from previous years will help you get a sense of what items are likely to be popular. It’s also important to re-assess your warehouse strategy and where/how you’re going to store in-demand inventory so it’s easy to access for online sales once peak season hits.

If you have a multi-mode warehouse strategy, it’s costly and inefficient to duplicate your entire range of SKUs across locations. Instead, look for patterns in regional customer spending so you can take a localized approach to inventory management.

Review your holiday shipping strategy

Shipping grows more complex (and more expensive) during peak season. And thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the parcel landscape over the past few years has been volatile at best.

Most major parcel carriers have been operating at or near to peak capacity since Q2 of 2020. But with more consumers drifting back to brick and mortar stores and utilizing hybrid services like BOPIS and in-store returns, pressure on parcel carriers has abated slightly.

However, this doesn’t mean that surcharges should be left out of your peak season planning. Although yet to be announced, there’s no doubt that peak season surcharges are going to hit retailers where in hurts most in 2022. And with consumers hyper-sensitive to price increases during times of inflation, brands will have to get clever to avoid the brunt of extra fees from shipping carriers.

One upside is that an earlier peak shipping season takes pressure off retailers to offer expedited shipping to their customers in the lead-up to Christmas. Instead, explore how more cost-effective economy shipping options can help reduce pressure on your fulfillment process. Moreover, the recent expansion of regional parcel carriers into nationwide services provide merchants with more carrier choice, so consider opening discussions with regional carriers to boost bandwidth.

Streamline return management

Handling returns is an inevitable part of being a retailer, and consumers have high expectations about the quality of their returns experience. 72% of consumers expect a refund within 5 days of returning an item, and 52% have abandoned an online purchase due to a ‘difficult’ returns workflow.

While delivering a positive returns experience during the rest of the year is one thing, the unique challenges of peak season are the ultimate test of your return management system.

Peak season sees retailers under pressure to handle a high volume of returns within a very condensed period. So-called ‘National Returns Day’ – the day in early January with the highest number of returned items –  is something of an urban legend. UPS handled 8.75 million returns during the week of Jan. 4, 2021 – a 23% rise from the highest volume return period in 2019.

If your business is unable to process returns efficiently during peak season, this results in thousands of dollars of revenue disappearing through lost exchange and cross-selling opportunities. Utilizing a returns management tool such as Happy Returns, Returnly, 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 seasonal revenue.

Check our complete holiday returns management guide for more tips on how to ensure a smooth returns workflow during peak season.

Your digital storefront

Give your website a full health check

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

Amongst the chaos of peak season, the last thing you want is a critical infrastructure failure. This would cause cart abandonment to skyrocket – right in the most profitable part of the year.

Ensure that you’re offering potential customers a seamless shopping experience by checking the following:

  • Site speed (aim for a loading time of 3 seconds or less)
  • Checkout/payment gateway
  • 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 e-commerce store so that you can interact with your website in the exact same way as your customer.

Proofread your FAQs

Every e-commerce website should have an FAQ (frequently asked questions) page, but there’s a lot that separates a great FAQ page from an average one

During the holiday season, customers are more likely to shop with new retailers. This means that FAQs are one of the first pages that new site visitors will look for, so your FAQs need to 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 policy’ so that answering questions is easy.

It’s a good idea to add a new FAQ section to reflect any changes you plan on making to your policies during the holiday season. For example, if you’re going to lengthen return windows, make sure this is clearly stated along with the time period this is valid for. 

Also, make sure that your FAQs really are FAQs. Does your page contain what customers are asking about, or what you think they’re asking about? It’s important to maintain communication with your customer service team, who can identify key trends in customer inquiries that may warrant their own FAQs. 

Optimizing your product pages for SEO

Competition in e-commerce is fierce at any time of the year, but peak season always kicks this up a notch. When so many merchants stock similar or even the same products, it’s vital that you’re the first brand on shoppers’ radar.

In e-commerce, nearly 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% respectively.

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

This is why peak season planning 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 copy, make sure that 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 to avoid high return rates.

Your physical storefront

Prepare your stores for increased foot traffic

With in-store restrictions coming to an end and consumers looking for immersive experiences, 2022 peak season is set to see a massive boost in brick-and-mortar shopping. 

March 2022 saw e-commerce sales decline while in-store sales rose – a first since the pandemic began. While this is partly in response to pent-up demand, there’s no doubt that shipping costs and online return fees are going to push price-conscious consumers toward retail stores.

Retailers who’ve pivoted during the pandemic to using retail stores as additional fulfillment locations need to think carefully about whether this is compatible with busier storefronts. For example, do you have enough store associates to fulfill online holiday orders and serve customers in-store? To prepare for peak season, you need to consider how this shift could negatively impact customer satisfaction.

Streamline your BOPIS and curbside pick-up strategies

The pandemic has led many brick and mortar retailers to embrace hybrid retail strategies such as BOPIS and curbside pick-up. 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 the in-store busy season where they might not find the products they want on the shelf.

For retailers who’ve gotten by with an ad-hoc approach to these services in the past, this is unlikely to hold up under the pressure of higher order volumes. To prepare for peak, you need to make sure that you’re ready to scale your services. 

For example, not having designated pick-up points for click and collect orders will slow down the pick-up process and create long queues. 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 this 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 to test it in person and make the purchase. In the reverse, a customer might find a product in-store and choose to place an order for home delivery if it offers more 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 seeing. 

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 peak season.

Get ready for peak season by partnering with Ryder E-commerce By Whiplash

When it comes to order fulfillment and storage, there’s one problem that outstrips most during peak season – scalability.

The holiday season is an intense and concentrated sales period that requires retailers to rapidly scale fulfillment. As order volumes rise, this requires more staff, more automation, and more storage space, which is costly and time-consuming to coordinate independently. When peak shipping 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 omnichannel provider like Ryder E-commerce By Whiplash. With 24 state-of-the-art facilities in strategic locations across the United States, we get your brand peak season ready with its proprietary e-commerce technology and advanced automation solutions for seamless fulfillment. Leverage our relationships with major parcel carriers to access the best peak shipping season rates, keeping your costs down – and your customers satisfied.

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