Your Shipping and Fulfillment Holiday Checklist

delivery-at-doorThe last few pieces of turkey have finally been cleaned out of your refrigerator and the Christmas rush has begun. But in case you haven’t noticed, there are fewer days between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year—and that means you’ll need to hit the ground running from now through December 25th to fully benefit from the holiday shopping season.

The mantra for merchants this holiday season is simple: planning, planning, planning. The more time and energy you invest in planning your holiday shipping and fulfillment strategy, the more effective your brand will be in delivering the type of customer experience that will keep shoppers coming back in 2014.

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At this stage of the game, planning can still improve the customer experience in some areas. But in many cases, it’s too late to effectively change your retail agenda through the end of the year. With that in mind, here is a final checklist of items you can still focus on from now through Christmas.

By now, you should have inventory ordered and in stock for the holidays. If your inventory levels have been calibrated to meet seasonal sales forecasts, continue to monitor stock levels and adjust your sales strategy accordingly.

If you haven’t successfully planned your inventory for the holidays, it’s unlikely that you will be able to re-order many items before the holiday shopping season ends. So from now through the end of the year, your sales strategy should focus on incentivizing customers to purchase items that are already sitting on your warehouse shelves.

Gift Cards
There are two kinds of gift cards that need to be considered at this time of year: gift cards that can be used for store purchases and gift message cards that are placed in boxes to add a personal touch to gifted merchandise.

Combined with gift boxes, both kinds of gift cards present unique packaging requirements that need to be addressed in the warehouse. Keep in mind that the first type of gift cards are often redeemed in January, so you will need to factor the value of these cards into your sales and inventory forecasts.

Shipping Deadlines
It’s not uncommon for ecommerce providers to slip up when it comes to shipping deadlines. More than any other time of year, the holidays are a deadline driven shopping period during which your customers expect to receive their orders when promised—no exceptions.

If you haven’t done so already, nail down the deadline for guaranteed delivery by Christmas—for most etailers, the deadline is December 19th. Also, if you normally rely on SurePost or SmartPost for shipping, I would recommend upgrading to a different service for final holiday deliveries to ensure that your products arrive on time.

The alignment of warehouse staffing with order volumes becomes even more important during the holiday shopping season. Daily order forecasting and creative scheduling solutions can go a long way toward improving staffing accuracy.

Since shortages are most likely to occur around skilled workers, it’s important to make sure that inexperienced and seasonal workers are assigned to less sophisticated tasks (e.g. sealing boxes), freeing up your most qualified employees to focus on scanning and other activities that require a level of technical expertise.

Strategy and organization are important, but no amount of planning can eliminate the potential for last minute emergencies and shipping snafus. It’s inevitable that a customer will receive a late shipment or require a change in delivery method at the last possible moment. Likewise, you may encounter a run on a specific product, forcing you to quickly turn around an accumulation of back orders when you receive additional inventory right before the shipping deadline.

The holiday shopping season is many customers’ first experience with your brand and will impact whether or not they will return for additional purchases in 2014. By going above and beyond to deliver an exceptional customer experience, you can make lasting impressions on holiday shoppers—regardless of the challenges and emergencies you encounter.

Maria Haggerty is president at Dotcom Distribution.