The holiday selling period is paramount for many small business owners, and shipping product quickly, economically and accurately can mean the difference between a successful and a ho-hum fiscal year. For many companies, it's about streamlining processes to better meet increased demand from the seasonal rush.
"The consequence of inefficient shipping can be a disaster," says Stephen Antisdel, manager of Precept Partners, LLC, a Buchanan, Mich.-based web development and strategic consulting firm. "When a company fails to fulfill orders in a timely way, it's a customer service and PR nightmare."
To avoid those hassles, Antisdel recommends doing research on shipping vendors far in advance of the holiday rush as possible. "You won't get the time and attention you need from the vendor reps while everyone is in the heat of the battle," he warns.
Consider not only rates and discounts, but also compare packaging requirements: Will they pick up? If so, how often? Will they leave a container on site for your staff to fill, which saves space in your shipping area? What is their service like from your customers' perspective?
Once you've picked the right service, consider the strategies of these three business owners who found ways to streamline the shipping process for the holidays.
No. 1 - Take advantage of technology.
International shipping has a unique set of challenges, since each country has its own rules and procedures. This was particularly problematic for Raphael Neff, owner of The Chess House, which sells chess sets and related products in 125 countries. Shipping an average of 60 to 100 packages a day, he was spending way too much time researching global policies on the United States Postal Service (USPS) web site, not to mention waiting in long lines at the post office during the holiday rush. Then he discovered Endicia, a software system that calculates USPS rates, customizes forms and prints them on an integrated label with postage.
"Some small businesses still handwrite some aspects of their shipping. There's no reason to do that, whether shipping five or 300 post office parcels a day," says Neff, whose company's annual sales are just under $1 million.
As a result of using the software system, it takes an average of 40 to 50 seconds from the time a U.S. customer places an order with Chess House until that order is verified, packed, processed and put in the outgoing bin -- and no more than two minutes for international orders. This is about one-sixth of the time he spent on shipping before utilizing the technology. Other similar online postage services include the USPS's Click n Ship and Stamps.com.
“The bottom line is more packages per employee hour," Neff says. "Every little factor adds up."
This holiday season, he's adding keyed order entry through Endicia. Once an order number is typed in, the address and shipping method populate automatically. By eliminating the need to type all information by hand – the company saves time and avoids mistakes that can come from manually entering the data.
No. 2 - Designate specific shipping days.
For Allison Cecil, shipping product every day from her San Diego-based web business Monkeys Always Look was slowing down production during the busy holiday season. She handcrafts custom cutlery, jewelry and stationary products, and her frequent trips to the post office were interrupting production on a daily basis.
In 2010, Cecil's third holiday season since starting the business, she decided to ship only on Tuesdays and Fridays so she could focus completely on making products the other days. "Because I was so efficient I got more items made each week," says Cecil, who sells her products through retailers as well as directly to consumers through her website. "I also had a shorter lead time from purchase to shipment than I did the year before."
As a result, Cecil was able to handle two to three times more orders in the week before Christmas than she had the year before. And Monkeys Always Look's revenues increased 35 percent from Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) through December 24, compared with the same period in 2009.
Related: Guidelines to Save Money on Shipping
No. 3 – Pre-package your most-popular products in batches.
Anton Skorucak, founder and chief executive of Science Supplies, Toys & Gifts, found his staff duplicating efforts when it came to packaging and shipping the company's most popular products during the holiday rush.
So last year, the Long Beach, Calif.-based company instituted "batching," where he dedicated one to two shipping stations to focus on the company's 20 to 30 best-selling products. His 20 employees then began pre-packaging these items so they would be ready to go with the exception of the customer's shipping information.
"If it's a popular toy, most people buy just that toy, and if it's pre-packed you can really ship fast," says Skorucak, who founded the business in 1995. "We literally go through palettes of our most popular products daily during the holiday season."
The company's shipping stations generally handle between 30 and 60 orders an hour, but the dedicated stations process 100 to 120 orders in the same time frame.
"It saves in employee hours and it increases accuracy," he says. "And when you're processing products that are the same weight and dimensions, you're much less prone to error."