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Did You Do All You Could to Prepare Your Online Company for This Peak Selling Season? These five questions can help you assess whether your systems and processes are optimized for this year's spikes in order volumes.

By Jan Arendtsz

entrepreneur daily

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Traditionally, preparing for the holiday rush has meant sprucing up your store's front window, stocking up on inventory and bringing on seasonal staff to handle the throng of customers that begins in mid-November and doesn't let up until after Christmas.

Related: Apps to Supercharge Your Ecommerce Site for the Holiday Season

But because today's retail industry is a patchwork of ecommerce storefronts, brick-and-mortar stores and massive online retailers like Amazon and Walmart, preparing for the current era's holiday rush looks radically different. And it should. Total holiday online sales, according to Shopify, jumped from $94.4 billion in 2016 to $101.8 billion last year, and this year's numbers are expected to be the highest we've ever seen.

Modern consumers expect a shopping experience that's easy, fast and convenient. So businesses need to go far beyond hanging decorations and bringing on temp workers. They need to make sure their ecommerce system is up to the task of processing and fulfilling orders without a hitch during a major spike in business.

Perhaps now, the week before Christmas, when you're in the thick of things, is a good time for you to assess how well you've prepared your ecommerce system for this 2018 holiday shopping season. Have you done all you could?

How has your ecommerce fared?

Online commerce looks easy on the surface. After finding a product from a web search, a shopper buys with just a few clicks, right? You know that this is a simplistic view; it's a different story behind the scenes.

Retailers generally use multiple applications for customer communications, fulfillment, inventory management, product updates and other key processes. They may have separate applications to manage multiple sales channels, from physical stores to digital storefronts and marketplaces like Amazon and eBay. They likely have an ERP system to manage inventory, fulfillment and finances, as well as customer relationship management technology to interact with current and potential customers.

However, these systems are often siloed, meaning they are separate systems that lack the ability to share order information.

Related: Small-Business Owners Will Trust These Brands Most to Get Business Done During the Holiday Season

This siloed approach might work fine on a typical day, but does it hold up when orders triple overnight? Is it holding up for you now during the current last-minute pre-Christmas rush? As you assess your business during this peak buying season, here are the five questions to ask yourself. The answers can help you decide whether you did all you could to ensure a healthy, robust ecommerce system:

Have you been spending 10-plus hours a week manually moving data between systems?

Hopefully you haven't: It's easy for us to disregard manually entering data for 30 minutes here and there, but it adds up. Then all of a sudden you realize you're spending 10 times that amount of time per week entering data when that time should have been spent improving the product and conversing with customers.

Have you been manually processing information from your trading partners?

Many big-box retailers require that you send and receive EDI documents. Having to manually process these documents may be putting you at a distinct disadvantage. Likewise, if you work with a 3PL, you may have to transmit orders immediately after a shopper checks out. The result of delays in relaying information due to manual processes could have been a snowballing of those delays as order volumes increased.

Have all your sales channels been displaying accurate product availability?

Relying on manual or batch processes to keep sales and inventory in sync between channels could cause inconsistencies and delays at the very time when customers are most eager to buy. Hopefully, you've been keeping product availability information accurate across your sales channels.

Has your product and price information been reliably up to date, everywhere?

Changes to your product catalog should have been shared immediately across all of your selling channels. Customers, especially those in holiday rush mode, demand up-to-the-minute price and product information.

Have you been able to meet customer expectations after orders were placed?

Relying on manual processes or sub-par integrations when orders spike can make it impossible to meet fulfillment targets. Customers expect to receive shipping information immediately upon checkout, and they expect your support team to have real-time visibility into their order should they call about its status.

Asking yourself these five questions can help you figure out what happened if your ecommerce system has (unfortunately) buckled under the pressure of a holiday rush. To be competitive in today's retail environment, your strategic plan must ensure that every application in your ecommerce supply chain can share data seamlessly, accurately and automatically.

Companies use a variety of technologies and techniques to accomplish this. The three most popular options include:

Custom IT integrations: For maximum control, some companies build custom integrations using either internal IT resources or external consultants. Integrations can be completely customized to meet the company's needs, but ongoing maintenance and changes may become costly and slow due to code changes that can only be only done by IT or consultants.

Point-to-point connectors: Pre-built integrations among shopping carts, online marketplaces, ERP, WMS, 3PL and other key systems offer cost-effective integrations for businesses that don't require customizations. However, reliability and quality of service vary across vendors, so selecting solutions that can scale to meet a company's future needs is important.

iPaaS: Integration platform-as-a-service (or "iPaaS") can be used to integrate all types of data -- including cloud applications, on-premise servers, CSV files, EDI documents and more. Tools and dashboards make it easy to build and manage integrations. A key differentiator among iPaaS is the target user technical IT staff or business users.

Related: Don't Let Product Returns Eat Into Your Online Profits This Holiday Season

All of these integration options have their place in the ecommerce world. As the head of a company, you should put in the time to find the approach that suits your current and expected future needs. Clearly, in the digitally connected holiday times we live in, the technology back-end has become rather more important than sprucing up your storefront window.

Jan Arendtsz

CEO, Celigo

Jan Arendtsz is a veteran of the software industry with more than 20 years of experience in development, product management, client services and sales roles. He founded Celigo in 2006 with the goal of simplifying the integration of cloud-based applications. He is responsible for overseeing all company operations. Arendtsz holds a B.S. in Computer Science from the University of Texas at Austin.

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