Most folks think that the gift holidays are in late December. Those of us in the eCommerce and catalog fulfillment business know that by late December, it’s all over except for the returns. For us, The Show starts in October. We know that the key to a solid holiday season is solid preparation in October and November. In our little beds at night, we reject useless visions of sugar plums, and instead worry about how we’re going to get all of those packages out in time. So here are some thoughts that might just help make that happen.
Projections: If you haven’t already, do them right now!
Everyone is a Grinch about projections. They’re tedious, unrewarding and unfun. You could toil for hours over multiple spreadsheets, trying to produce some analytical alchemy alloyed from last year’s numbers (if you’re lucky enough to have a year of history), recent trends, the promotional calendar, proposed shipping deadlines, day of week analysis, backorders and operational productivity rates.
In the end, you’re still going to be demonstrably wrong. There are simply too many variables that you can’t control, or even reasonably predict. Being the person tasked with preparing the projections is like getting fitted for a dunce cap.
However, do the projections anyway. Your marketing team has access to last year’s numbers, recent sales trends, purchase order data, and your promotional calendar. In short, they have better inputs, and their guess should be better than those of either your Operations department or your outsourced fulfillment partner. Projections are critical to both labor planning and other resource management. I’m no Human Resources savant, but I’m guessing that it is difficult to hire quickly-trainable people for high-stress, long hours, low-paying temporary jobs working in a warehouse in December. In addition, running out of boxes on December 15 is also not a good look on you.
Projections aren’t about getting the numbers right, any more than the holidays themselves are about giving or receiving the perfect gift. Projections are about getting the numbers better. For many merchants, the holiday season is the ultimate stress test of your business. At max stress, you’re never going to be perfect. But you’ve got to proactively prepare so that you can to be as proximate to perfect as possible.
Keep it Real: Deadlines and Promotions
The best products and marketing in the world will fail to impress your customers if the package doesn’t arrive in time. If you’re lucky, your disrespected and empty-handed gift recipients will just circle around the village square, hand-in-hand just like the Whos in Whoville and sing that haunting carol whose lyrics begin (and here is a holiday trivia bomb that you can drop on your relatives in a few weeks) “Fah who foraze! Dah who doraze!...”
But my family tree houses no Whos, and neither do you. There aren’t many family faux pas bigger than a tardy holiday gift, so you’ve got to respect the logistics and just be sure to get your customers' gifts there on time. Here are some tips:
● Carefully consider your deadlines for holiday orders. Schedule your major promotions early. You need to take into account that every link in the delivery chain: inbound deliveries; fulfillment; and outbound deliveries; are at their highest stress points of the year. Build some time to allow for everything to work less than perfectly, because at this time of year, it likely will.
● For gift shipments, consider incentivizing your customers to order early, possibly with delayed shipping: “Order by November 15. Ship when you’re ready”. This allows the fulfillment operation to pick and pack your order early, but to delay shipment until a more holiday-appropriate time. It also provides an early outlet for the inexplicable mania of Aunt Wanda, who is always smug about having her holiday shopping done weeks in advance, when normal humans have not yet begun.
● Rethink gift packaging. Your fulfillment operation takes 2-4 minutes to pick a typical order and another minute to pack it. When you add traditional gift wrapping, you’re adding another 5 minutes per wrapped item to the process. This both doubles your costs and halves your labor productivity at the time of year when you most rely upon it to get the volume out the door. More efficient gift options include:
○ Shifting from traditional gift wrapping to gift boxes, which can be either generic or branded with your choice of printing, labels, tissues and ribbons. These options are less expensive and faster to process.
○ Replacing or enhancing gift packaging with custom printed inline gift notes. These allow your customer to enter a personal message with the order, which is then printed on your lovely branded gift card stock in a tasteful font of your choosing. It’s hard to describe how superior the gift note is to just burying your heartfelt message within the utilitarian landscape of a packing slip, where it gets lost among item descriptions, long SKU numbers, barcodes and other un-festive elements. It’s the gifting equivalent of saying “I love you” versus “Hey, take it easy”.
● Get your inbound receiving into the fulfillment operation before Thanksgiving, because once the turkey gobbles (or rather, stops gobbling) the fulfillment operation’s primary focus necessarily shifts to getting orders shipped out to customers. Holiday shipping labor is a zero-sum game. Any labor that the operation diverts to receiving late inbound shipments will only subtract from outbound operations.
So there you have it. With a bit of prior planning, in late December you can be quaffing too many eggnogs (any quantity >1) rather than fielding desperate and angry pleas from customers alleging that you have single-handedly ruined their holidays. Don’t be a holiday ruiner. Be an eggnog regretter. Good luck!
About the Author
After starting my career as a suit-wearing, MBA-toting commercial loan officer (pictured), I fell into a nascent fulfillment industry just in time for the birth of eCommerce. While I’ve since enjoyed stints conceiving and executing original brands, I’m again hooked on the addictive draw of perfectly executing the dreams of others.
I am Vice President | Client Development for Warwick Fulfillment Solutions. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.