Whether you're Amazon or a small ecommerce startup, the holidays are the biggest time of year for the online-retail industry.
As many consumers and retailers witnessed last year, shipping can play a major role in determining the success of the holiday-shopping season. The carriers have done their part to calm consumers’ fears and ensure the shipping nightmares of 2013 are not repeated this year, as have big online retailers such as Amazon. However, many small ecommerce businesses are not as prepared, which puts them at risk of losing businesses to other retailers.
If you’re a smaller ecommerce company, it’s not too late to make a few adjustments to make sure your holiday-shopping season is free of any shipping snafus. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Calm customer fears.
Even if your business didn’t experience a single shipping problem last year, there is still a good chance your customers did with another retailer. To quell any customer anxiety, be sure to inform customers about what your businesses is doing to proactively avoid any shipping problems this year and any associated shipping deadlines.
UPS, FedEx and Amazon have all done a great job publicizing that they are hiring more seasonal workers, modernizing their shipping technology and/or expanding their shipping and sorting facilities.
2. Be realistic about your delivery dates.
One of the biggest issues last year was over-promising around delivery dates. This is understandable, given many customers wait until the last minute to order for Christmas.
Each year, the carriers provide their cutoff dates for each service level, so there should be no mystery as to whether packages will arrive in time or not. Making sure your site has these dates in the shopping cart, instead of the standard date ranges, is crucial to maintaining customer satisfaction.
Another strategy that larger retailers use is padding their delivery dates. Instead of the standard delivery timeframes, they add on a day or two. This can take some of the pressure off your fulfillment as well as off the carriers.
Additionally, making sure your delivery estimates are synchronized with the actual cut offs provided by the carriers will protect against having to refund or reship orders.
3. Staff up.
For smaller ecommerce companies, the biggest wins will be around improving fulfillment times and hitting delivery cutoffs. Staffing up with a few extra people to make sure orders get out in a timely fashion will provide much quicker overall shipping times while keeping shipping costs low.
If your company is big enough to support it, you can also explore the option of adding an additional distribution center.
4. Explore same-day shipping and in-store pickups.
Big retailers such as Amazon and Target are pushing same-day delivery and in-store pickup as a big competitive differentiator -- especially for last-minute shoppers. While this may take some pressure off the carriers (which is good for everyone), it can be a hard selling point for a small ecommerce business to overcome, as same-day shipping isn’t a profitable alternative for most.
However, that doesn’t mean it can’t be offered to customers as an option. Explore your options for local courier services or regional carriers like OnTrac and LaserShip, and if it makes sense, you can offer it to your customers as an alternative.
5. Expand fulfillment options.
If you’re currently working with one fulfillment center, try expanding to two or three. This is a non-trivial piece of logistics, but it can provide very big gains to your fulfillment process. You’ll simultaneously decrease your shipping times while also decreasing your shipping costs, since you’ll be closer to the customers you’re shipping to.
It may not be realistic for you to implement all of these adjustments in the coming week, so prioritize based on your business plans for the holiday season. At the very least, implementing one of these will put you at a big advantage this season and set you up for a successful 2015.