By Sarah Greesonbach, retail, marketing & technology contributor
- Inventory management is especially important during the holiday season, when as much as 30% of annual sales walk through retailers’ doors.
- To avoid breakdowns that result in poor customer experiences or lost sales, begin by liaising with your suppliers before the season begins.
- Also square things away with your shipping carriers and teams beforehand, ensuring all parties know their responsibilities for the holiday blitz and beyond.
Consumers aren’t the only ones who anticipate the holiday shopping season — retailers know as much as 30% of their yearly sales may pass through their doors over the holidays. But delivering the same quality of customer service, products and availability despite exponential increases in the number of transactions you process is a challenge.
Fortunately, you can plan your way into a more successful holiday shopping season in 2020 — or even correct course this year — by addressing the potential holiday hurdles that slow down your supply chain and disrupt your customer experience.
1. Check in on your supplier relationships before the season begins.
Strong supplier relationships are important year-round, but they’re critical during the holidays when your sales potential depends on having products in good shape and in-stock. Any delays in shipping or deliveries — even outages from the manufacturing or supply side — affect your ability to move product.
“Suppliers are an extension of a brand,” said Jeff Ross, channels manager at shipping software company ShipStation. “They represent what the customer buys, so building a trusting relationship with them is foundational to any successful product cycle — especially during the busy holiday season.”
Strong relationships with your suppliers can aid in crises year-round, like they did when new tariffs hit manufacturers last year.
Start by reviewing and updating (if needed) the contact details for key partners in your supply chain about three months before the end of the year. Call or email your suppliers to wish them a happy holiday season and ask if there’s anything you can do to make things run smoothly for them during it, sharing your sales projections for the next two months if possible.
Next, review your supply chain reports and address any points of friction over the past six months and for last year’s holiday season. As you review your reports, check each delivery and shipping expense. Can any of these fees be reduced, or are there other suppliers who may provide more competitive pricing or reliable service? If you find you can save a lot of money on one partner, it might make sense to make the switch a few months before the holiday shopping season ramps up. If, on the other hand, you find you can save money via new agreements with multiple partners, you may opt to make those changes for next year to avoid too much disruption for the upcoming season.
Finally, as a way to check your overall supply chain health, take your previous month’s inventory load and double the numbers to replicate what could happen during the holiday season. Logistically, what would need to change in order to make it work seamlessly?
Before the holiday shopping season starts, touch base with your suppliers and shipping services.
2. Finalize shipping details for all carriers.
Every year, shipping carriers like U.S. Postal Service, United Parcel Service and FedEx expect a 30% uptick in deliveries during the holiday season, peaking on Dec. 22.
To manage the overflow, these carriers often expand shipping options available to customers such as guaranteed delivery dates and a wide range of pricing. This is convenient for holiday shoppers, because they have more options to get the right package to the right place at the right time. But it adds another layer of complexity for managing your supply chain and setting accurate expectations with your customers and teams.
“One of the most important factors in prepping for a successful holiday season is knowing your holiday shipping deadlines for each carrier,” said John Kinny, general manager of ShipStation. “Understanding where and when your carriers can deliver a package gives you the information you need to have your inventory in-stock and available at the right time.”
Educate yourself on your shipping carriers in order to maintain a smooth fulfillment process.
- What are the time and date cut-offs for submitting online orders in order to process and ship same-day?
- What are each carrier’s average shipping costs?
- Are packages routinely shipped out in the expected time frame, especially for those who’ve paid for expedited shipping?
3. Map out internal responsibilities, and set expectations with your team.
Preparing team members and seasonal staff for the retail holiday rush is a time-honored tradition. But sometimes conversations about scheduling and staffing overwhelm strategic preparations, such as delegating critical responsibilities and setting clear performance expectations around situations that are unique to the holiday season.
One of the most prominent sources of stress and lost value in your supply chain during this time is your returns process, which can represent a $90 billion value, as well as a valuable opportunity to inspire long-term customer loyalty. Avoid confusion and ensure your team understands your expectations for when it gets busy by deconstructing your returns process. Identify and eliminate potential weak points, such as poor usability scores or complicated return requirements, which will allow you to streamline the customer experience and enable your team to turn inventory around quickly.
Here are four more opportunities in your supply chain where mapping out internal responsibilities and setting expectations with your team can capture significant value:
- Mitigate potential price increases with the first in, first out stocking method, which moves your oldest inventory first.
- Put a spotlight on accuracy and quality control, two metrics that can slip when a high volume of orders and customers come through your store.
- In brick-and-mortar stores, ask your team to be on alert for increased rates of shoplifting, and remind them of loss prevention protocol.
- Approach shipping delays – which affect 8% of packages – as customer retention opportunities by handling them efficiently.
Wrapping it up
If you don’t have a plan to prepare for common holiday hurdles in your supply chain, you may find yourself with a chain and inventory control breakdown that results in a negative customer experience and countless missed sales.
Combine these three checkpoints with a technology solution, and you’ll have everything you need to deliver a seamless shopping experience throughout the holidays and coming year.