Store owners, take note: the National Retail Federation has forecasted total sales in the range of $105 billion USD during the 2015 holiday season.
Getting a piece of this enormous pie depends on a lot of things. You need to have a great selection of products, timely and convincing marketing, and a committed team.
You also need to think about how to keep that piece of the pie — that is, how to prevent your newly convinced customers from feeling frustrated with any part of the purchasing process and sending their products right back to where they came from.
Shipments are one of the most crucial parts of the holiday shopping season, and if handled well, they can help you secure repeat customers and prevent returns or other complaints. Let’s take a look at a few ways you can ensure smooth shipments during this busy time, and keep the piece of the pie you’re working so hard to earn.
First things first: prepare your shipping team
Right out of the gate, you should make employees that handle shipments for your store aware that there will be an increase in shipments during the holidays.
Depending on the size of your store, this might involve prepping one person — yourself — or it might mean arranging a meeting with a hundred employees. Either way, try to prepare your team before the rush begins so no one is caught off guard.
If you’ve been through a busy online holiday before, you likely know what to say and what to expect — a increase in packages, higher demand to get items out the door, last-minute orders shipping overnight, special requests, even a need for temporary help. But if this is your first rodeo, to speak, chat with your team about:
- Volume — More orders will need to be processed each day, so employees will need to move quickly while preserving their accuracy. Orders should be double-checked, but time is of the essence.
- Large orders — You’re more likely to see customers spend high amounts at your store during the holidays. Talk about how you’ll handle these larger orders, from packaging to processing to shipping.
- Supplies — If you’re offering goodies like gift wrap or personalization, where will they be kept? Who will be responsible?
- Shipping methods and timing — Reiterate the deadlines for getting goods out the door, or discuss new ones if you’re introducing 2-day or overnight shipping for those last-minute buyers.
Even if your store is small and you only have a handful of employees, mentally preparing your team for the holiday season can keep your shipments in top-notch shape during this important season — and ensure your customers come back again and again.
Review and set your shipping deadlines
Next step: deciding when you need to stop shipping products to your customers.
Depending on which areas of the world you serve, you may or may not have a cutoff point for holiday shipments. Stores that serve the US and Canada, with customers who mainly celebrate Christmas, often post notices stating that guaranteed delivery in time for this holiday ends approximately one week prior.
On the other hand, if your store serves multiple international locations with many different winter holidays, you might find yourself posting several notices of this nature. Or you might not have a cutoff point at all, thanks to the many shipping methods you offer (more on that below).
We recommend sitting down before the holidays get fully underway to do the following:
- Take inventory of all the countries you ship to
- Make note of the holidays celebrated in these locations (the calendar available in this post can help out with this process)
- Based on your available shipping methods to these locations, set deadlines for each method and each country — that is, the cutoff point at which customers will need to place their order to have it on their doorstep in time for that holiday
For some tips on how to effectively communicate these deadlines to your shoppers, have a look at this post — it’s full of ideas and how-tos you can use in your store.
Evaluate your shipping methods based on customer needs
During most times of the year, standard ground shipping might be perfectly fine for your customers. It might be unlikely for you to find someone in a big rush to receive their new sweater or coffee mug.
During the holidays, however — completely different story. Shoppers are hunting for last-minute gifts, perfect pieces, and things they need now, not in a week.
It’s entirely possible that you might need to add a temporary shipping option or two for the holiday season. This might mean overnight shipping, 2-day shipping, guaranteed delivery times, and so on.
However, don’t simply do this because you want to offer it, or because you think it will set your store apart. You should offer additional shipping methods based on what you anticipate your customers needing. Some stores will benefit from offering overnight shipments, while others won’t see the method get used… and might have wasted time and effort adding it.
How can you know if your customers will need new shipping options? A few thoughts:
- Check your feedback — Customers might have emailed or reached out on social in the past to express a need for different methods.
- Reach out and ask — Similarly, you can always post a survey, ask questions on social media, and so on — “do you think we need to ship faster for the holidays?”
- Base it on your goods — If you have inexpensive items that make great gifts, quicker shipping options are likely to be used. But if you have highly priced goods that aren’t likely to appear in a gift box, the holidays might not be a good time for you (and you likely already know this).
Here are a few more things you should consider when setting up shipments in your store, no matter the time of year.
Double-check your shipping materials
Almost nothing is worse for a customer than anticipating an order, opening the box with baited breath… and finding their long-awaited gift damaged or broken thanks to an insufficient box or packaging.
Your shipping boxes, material, and product packaging might hold up perfectly well for 90% of the year, but during the holiday season, they need to endure a lot more. Carriers are moving higher volumes and might not be as careful, and your own staff is going to be in a hurry as well. Boxes will be dropped, tossed, or even possibly opened for inspection at customs.
Spend some time reviewing your packaging and shipping materials to ensure your customers aren’t going to receive damaged or broken items. A few particular things to consider:
- Box size — Even if large orders aren’t the norm during the rest of the year, you might want to have some bigger packaging options on hand (or, at minimum, easily ordered from a supplier) for gift givers who find your store perfect for all their loved ones. On the other hand, smaller boxes with extra bubble wrap might be a safer choice for single items you’d normally ship in a medium-sized box.
- Box materials — Don’t pick something cheap. Envelopes are fine for small items already enclosed in hard plastic, but a sturdy cardboard box should otherwise be the norm.
- Insurance — Consider offering it if you ship fragile goods, like glass, ceramic, CDs/DVDs, and so on.
- Wrapping and padding — Be prepared to use extra packing peanuts, bubble wrap or sheets, and paper on fragile goods or small items. Assume that your boxes will be stacked, tossed, and potentially stepped on, and protect your items better than you normally would.
- Revealing gifts — Finally, consider at least giving customers the option to choose discreet brown boxes without large “from” labels or stamps during this time of year, in case they live with their gift recipients. You might already do this, but it’s something to think about!
Spend quality time with customer service
It’s hard to think of everything you need to do to prepare your shipments for the holidays. As hard as you try, you’re probably going to forget something, or miss some small detail.
But there’s always one resource you can count on not to miss these crucial details: your customer service team.
Before the holiday season starts, spend some time talking with customer service about anything else you might need to consider. They’re at the front lines fielding emails, phone calls, or comments all the time — they know what problems have come up in the past, and what’s likely to come up again. They’ll also be able to tell you about problems that currently exist with your shipments (and you should definitely knock those out before it gets busy).
Listen to your team with an open mind. Take notes, and don’t discredit their thoughts. You should walk away with a ton of valuable input that is both actionable immediately and in the future.
It’s also not a bad idea to have check-ins while the season progresses, or shortly before the busiest periods of the year. This will allow you to address any urgent issues before they escalate, and keep the lines of communication open with your team.
Make your holiday season a success
If you want your holiday season to go smoothly, and prevent returns or customer complaints, your shipping needs to be top-notch. By taking these steps ahead of time, you’ll ensure that your processes are solid, your packaging is sturdy, and your team is prepared, making your store more likely to attract repeat customers — and much less likely to receive phone calls or emails from upset buyers.
Speaking of preventing returns, have you signed up for our exclusive webinar with ShipStation? On Wednesday, November 4, we’ll be teaming up to discuss how you can prepare your store for post-holiday returns. We’ll chat about everything from creating a killer return policy to processing returned merchandise, and provide amazing tips you can’t get anywhere else.
Our webinar has taken place. Missed out on the action? Hop on over here to snag a copy of the slides for free.
Have any questions about smoother shipping for the holidays, or any suggestions of your own to add? You know what to do — chime in below. We always love hearing from you.