11 min read

Last-Minute Fulfillment and Peak Season Prep Advice 

Geoff Whiting

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Retailers should work on their last-minute fulfillment checklists and peak season prep to ensure they’re ready for the coming weeks. There’s plenty of work to test and tweak, so you optimize efforts and minimize costs. In 2022, that feels more important than in recent years because of rising fuel costs and parcel surcharges, while consumer desires and shopping habits seem to be declining. 

So, ask yourself if your business is ready and what you need to do to optimize your efforts. 

Think of it like being on your favorite baking competition show. There’s not enough time left on the clock to bake another cake, but you still have a chance to get the final touches right to make it an exceptional-looking treat.

holiday fulfillment

7 pieces of last-minute fulfillment advice 

At this point, there’s no magic wand you can wave to fix peak season needs. Your team should be switching to last-minute fulfillment support and improvements as you aim to avoid the supply chain issues we’ve seen recently. This is about getting your teams the prep work, tools, data, and processes to respond proactively and reactively to issues. 

1. Monitor the news 

Supply chains and logistics continue to dominate news coverage as carriers adjust rates, fuel pricing shifts, spot rates fall, and unique challenges like low Mississippi River levels slowing some cargo while cranking up barge rates

Keep your eyes open for disruptions across your inbound and outbound networks. Some of this approach requires looking at broader news, while other data will come from your manufacturing, your carrier, your freight forwarder, and other partners. News at your facilities or your 3PL’s facilities is just as important. If a carrier is late or grabs the wrong trailer, you want a team that is looking out for this and knows how to respond to fix it while communicating potential concerns to customers and partners.

Every major event can impact your last-minute fulfillment decisions.

2. Connect internal teams 

Create a team that can set company responses quickly and give them a plan to execute responses to news items, carrier or capacity changes, and issues at any facility or with a partner 3PL. Each of your core operational groups needs a seat at this table, even if it’s just a Teams group or email list. 

Before holiday sales begin, get everyone together to develop your information-sharing plan. Determine who is responsible for creating the next steps when news occurs and outline what to share with customers and what to keep internal.

eCommerce packaging - tape

3. Verify inventory levels for packaging and tape 

Typically, the current inventory focus is on the final staging of goods and SKUs to sell. However, we often hear about companies that haven’t scaled other efforts and materials up with projected sales. You want to ensure you’ve got higher volumes of packaging materials and tape to meet any potential surge. These items can be stored long-term, making extra stock less of a worry. 

Think about what you need for order management and fulfillment as well as what you may need to repackage goods after they’re returned. Last-minute fulfillment efforts shouldn’t be hampered by a lack of core materials. 

For this work, include your backup units too. That means securing an extra barcode scanner, printer, label maker, headsets, and similar tools. You don’t want a mission-critical system to go down with no replacement. 

4. Refresh carrier contacts 

Supply chain diversity has been a significant benefit in past years, and 2022 looks no different. It’s time to reconnect with carriers and 3PLs to update your forecasts and share details. Explain the surge you’re expecting and see where you might find a deal. The economic slowdown is causing many to predict that parcel volumes will be down during this peak, or at least that the capacity carriers have built up will prevent a strain. 

For example, FedEx has said its standard and ground services will see a lower peak season than previously forecast. If people are buying less, you’ll want to ensure you’re getting the best rates from carriers. Those rates will help you save relative to any revenue you produce while taking advantage of overall market declines. 

You may still have time to negotiate rates by shifting order volume among carriers. In past years, the push to diversify spread out volume across many regional and national networks. The decline in 2022 may give you options to secure capacity and pricing advantages by adjusting or shrinking your roster of carrier partners. If you work with a 3PL, ask about their responses to these shifting market numbers. 

5. Align inventory based on forecasts 

There’s not much you can order right now and have it inbound to your warehouses in time to capitalize on peak sales. That’s especially true if goods transit the oceans before arriving at your dock doors. So now, your last-minute fulfillment efforts should prioritize utilization of existing inventory for optimal revenue.  

Optimization will often focus on the deals listed on your site, using slower carrier services, and creating new packages or bundles to increase order volume. Operationally, you may also want to consider how you align inventory locations based on sales forecasts and existing inventory levels

Typically, this means spreading out inventory to appropriate locations based on projected sales data. Inventory allocation can reduce last-mile shipping costs on most orders. Review your locations or partner inventory levels to see if you want to move goods around now via freight shipments so you can reach customers quickly and avoid harmful delays. 

Find out how excellent fulfillment can improve your inventory management

Do you have goods that aren’t moving quickly? Is something taking up prime shelf space and slowly increasing its total cost to ship, as profitability drops? 

When this occurs, it might be time to move or get rid of stock. Liquidating obsolete inventory is likely something that we’ll see a lot of this year. Retailers are sitting on more than $732 billion in merchandise in the U.S., when looking at large companies with online and in-store sales. Many online retailers are in a similar position. If your slow-moving inventory continues to sit, it might be time to liquidate. Large online marketplaces often have liquidation sections and support, plus these items won’t need fast shipping due to the nature of the sale.  

6. Consider extra help 

Self-fulfilling companies should look at hiring additional help now for peak season. You not only want teams increased to handle normal demand spikes, but the looming threat of COVID and flu outbreaks could mean you need a larger workforce base to ensure you consistently meet shift levels. Hiring last-minute fulfillment help now gives you time to train teams on different tasks and ensure everyone has a little experience in each section they may work in. 

7. Test systems for peak usage 

One good element to run through before Black Friday and Cyber Monday are the tools you use to make sales and fill orders. Stress test every process your customers and warehouse teams use to ensure that they can handle the increased demand.  

The goal is to eliminate issues that harm your sales as well as those that harm your ability to manage orders. Issues with either can decrease your total order volume or increase your return rate and reverse logistics costs. 

You’ll want to ensure that vendors don’t fail you at the worst possible moment. Test inventory connections, order tools, shopping carts, payment gateways, logistics planning, carrier selection, pick and pack tools, and anything else that is essential to your operations. Work to fix issues and errors instead of replacing them at this point.

clickable guide on how to prepare for eCommerce peak season fulfillment

5 peak season prep tasks to double check 

Addressing your last-minute fulfillment and overall peak prep needs also involves significant customer-focused elements. There are some things you can get together to keep your website working properly for customer use, while shoring up internal processes and efforts. Keep your eyes on both so that issues are less likely to slip past and cause significant problems. 

1. Verify inventory levels  

While inventory and availability are definitely things to check in your last-minute fulfillment prep, we’re including it here. That’s to get you to keep thinking about how your warehouse impacts sales, website, and operations teams. These teams need to communicate regularly so that everyone is pushing the right products and avoiding issues like stockouts or taking orders you can’t fill.  

During peak season, it’s good to regularly review and verify inventory levels. Even if you’ve automated the process, spot checks can help verify accuracy. Peak season gets busy, and you may have pickers or packers put an item aside or set something down unintentionally. Barcode scans and inventory checks can help you notice when that occurs and get items reshelved at the end of each day to protect your inventory and avoid losses. 

2. Launch a communication plan 

ECommerce brands have few ways to share updates with customers, so you’re going to need a strong email or text plan to notify customers of updates or changes. Real-time communication is your goal here. There are a few key elements you want to include in this plan: 

  • Communicating delays via email 
  • Alerts for promotions and sales, both initially and if you run anything in December or early January to try and clear out inventory 
  • Marketing emails based on inventory levels (kits, gift guides for dad/mom/kids/etc.) 
  • Updates on when an order is processed and shipped 
  • Carrier tracking details and expected delivery dates
  • Pass on notices from carriers discussing changes in expected delivery times or other information 
flexible carrier selection

3. Update costs against carrier changes 

Every major carrier and nearly all regional carriers ramp up rates during peak season. If you’re updating your shipping costs (especially if you have high recurring sales or a very loyal customer base), take a moment to explain this. 

Internally, update your shipping cost estimates for average parcels, individual SKUs, and other order details. Rates and charges can change throughout peak season, or disruptions can cause you to shift carrier usage. Track this and update it regularly so that both you and your customers avoid financial surprises

Here are details on this peak season’s surcharges from FedEx, UPS, and USPS.

Get Carrier Support From Red Stag Fulfillment

4. Clarify shipping cutoff dates 

Some prep items require conversations with your carriers and customers. One of the best examples is shipping cutoff dates that you use to ensure as many orders arrive on time as possible. Companies like USPS and FedEx will publish this information on their websites, but you want to talk with your carrier contacts to verify these details.  

Check every carrier and service you use, so you can list this out for potential shoppers. Once you’ve got a solid date, make this as clear as possible. See about adding this to product pages and banners. You’ll also want it on checkout pages or shopping carts where the shoppers select and verify their shipping services. 

Note that these aren’t guaranteed and are based on carrier capabilities but tell people why you’re chosen this date for your service. 

5. Read over your returns policy 

Reverse logistics picks up significantly in January, and you’ll need to finalize those plans right now. Discuss your capabilities internally. See what value exists for returns and replacements, and adjust this based on cost and value for immediate sales as well as total inventory optimization. Get reverse logistics figured out so there are fewer last-minute fulfillment surprises

It’s okay to make some sales items non-refundable, but this needs to be clear too.  

Work through this to ensure that the policy is easy to read and understand. If you use a 3PL, discuss returns with them to help you understand costs based on industry predictions of about 33% return rates. Get teams and space together now so you have room to ramp up when returns increase.

peak USPS 2022 rates announced header

Make your peak experience worthwhile 

But what happens when everything goes wrong? Some companies will see issues mount and changes become too much to handle to get peak right. In those cases, it’s time to reach out to 3PLs to see what emergency support they can offer. 

You might find a partner who is able to take some of your inventory or handle specific orders at nearby facilities. Local carriers may be able to move freight to a 3PL’s warehouse to speed up processes. Rapid changes during peak do put you at risk, but sometimes they’re the only way to salvage sales and protect your business in the coming months and years. 

If you’re worried about making it through peak season and need last-minute fulfillment support, contact Red Stag right now. We’ll work with you to identify what’s possible and discuss how our premier fulfillment may be able to win over customers with reliable service even in uncertain times.

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