Five Holiday Shipping Best Practices for Retailers

Managing the holiday shopping season can be a challenge for retailers who lack the scale or workforce of larger players.

Anthony Watson
Anthony Watson

The holiday shopping season is upon us, whether your business is ready or not. It presents an exciting time for consumers who are looking for the latest toy or tech, and chaos and stress for retailers that need to meet shipping deadlines. Retailers are moving product across the U.S. and overseas, and can struggle with handling the increase in demand during the holidays. And the holidays are vitally important, with the two-month, November-to-December span accounting for a sizable percentage of sales for some retailers.

Managing the holiday shopping season is an especially acute challenge for small to medium-sized retailers who don’t have the scale or workforce of larger players, and may not recover from a disastrous season. To navigate this busy time, consider these five tips for reducing some of the headaches that come with holiday season shipping:

1. Ship Early to Avoid Problems

Even when everything is going as smoothly as humanly possible with your supply chain process, there will be some marginal delays in transit due to volume and last-minute orders. The situation is compounded by the burden placed on the carriers who must hire seasonal staff and coordinate a massive logistical task.

The carriers do have cutoff dates that mark when shipments can go out and still arrive by certain dates, but it’s important to recognize these are drop-dead dates. Retailers should put in place one- to two-day buffers on these dates to allow for carrier or warehousing delays.

2. Get All Hands on Deck

UPS, FedEx and other major logistics providers all have an all-hands-on-deck policy during the holidays, and so should you. Small to medium-sized retailers will need to rely on staff members throughout the organization to take on customer-centric roles to help smooth over any product/shipping problems and help manage inventory. It’s unrealistic to utilize the same team during the slow summer months to also handle the November and December crush with adequate efficiency. Bring in seasonal staff members if needed, while preparing internal staff for a short-term expanded role.

3. Manage Expectations

Shipping deadlines should be prominently displayed on a retailer’s web and mobile storefronts, and erring on the side of caution is better for the brand than cutting it close and risking ruining customers’ gift-giving fun. Smaller retailers simply can’t risk a bad holiday season, so they can’t post on their site: Order until December 23 for Christmas Eve delivery! Even if you have in place a team that may be able to manage this internally, there’s no margin for error from your side or the carriers. A better approach is to offer sales and promotions that encourage early ordering. If customers miss deadlines on their own, then they’ll likely understand. But if you promise delivery and then process the order two days late, you killed your brand goodwill.

4. Plan for Problems

As your business grows, you’ll need to dynamically manage extra shipments and be prepared for more mistakes. You can’t prevent every problem that may occur during the holiday shopping season, but you can proactively train staff and create rules for handling issues. Communication and transparency are essential. If you know about impending inventory or carrier-based delays, then communicate the problem to the affected customers (along with coupon incentives).

The communication must clearly state a timeline and what steps you are taking to remedy the issue. But again, don’t overpromise. Better to state a problem will take an additional three days, knowing it’s likely a one- or two-day fix. You also have to follow up the initial communication with frequent manual and automated updates. Don’t make the customer contact you to find answers. Keep them informed.

5. Remember: Three Times the Orders Requires 10 Times the Support

Customers do tend to go a little off the rails during the holidays due to the pressures of finding the perfect gift while on a limited budget. Some customers take out their frustrations on customer service staff by complaining about issues that cannot be fixed or posing unreasonable requests. You need customer support in place that understands how to patiently work with customers and present fixes instead of excuses. And this staff must be sufficient in size to handle the increased holiday’s season volume.

Smaller retailers rely on return customers and need a smooth holiday season in order to build a base of repeat business. Service is vital to this dynamic because a retailer can mess up the contents and delivery of a customer's order, but if they handhold them through the issues, provide frequent communication and deliver on promises about fixing the issue, there’s at least a chance the customer will come back and buy again. Despite their demanding nature, customers do understand mistakes happen, and they appreciate transparency and dealing with customer service that treats their problem with the utmost urgency and respect.