The Online Seller's Guide to Holiday Shipping 2014
By Ina Steiner
Are you ready for holiday shoppers who need their items YESTERDAY? For most online sellers, the holiday shopping season is their busiest time of year, but it is also a time when shipping problems are more apt to arise.
A perfect storm of events saw many shoppers disappointed during last year's holiday season, giving online shopping a bad rap for last-minute shoppers. "Last year's shortened shopping season, coupled with bad weather, and an unexpected surge in ecommerce, led to a holiday shipping fiasco leaving thousands without gifts on Christmas day," Endicia cofounder and General Manager Amine Khechfe explained.
"With holiday package volume 19 percent higher in 2013 than the same period in 2012, the private carriers underestimated the number of shipments and their networks were unable to support additional packages," he said, noting that the USPS was quick to identify and react to the surge in volume - it delivered packages on the three Sundays before Christmas in its busiest markets and delivered 75,000 packages on Christmas Day.
This year, the National Retail Federation's Shop.org unit expects online-only sales in November and December to grow between 8 - 11% over last holiday season to as much as $105 billion, compared to 2013's growth rate of 8.6%.
That's a big range for ecommerce this year, indicating greater uncertainty. But if the growth rate for online shopping hits the high range of Shop.org's forecast, it could put pressure on shipping carriers again this year. Weather can also prove problematic, as it did last year - it's so important, in fact, that UPS has five meteorologists on staff who work directly with the company's contingency planners.
Focus on the Operational Side of Shipping
ShipRush Product Manager Rafael Zimberoff recommended merchants focus on operations, and do so early. For example, he advises online sellers to consider setting up extra shipping stations, and use them all on a daily basis to make sure they're in working order. "Being reliant on a single PC and a single label printer is risky," he said - and make sure you have a 4 week supply of label stock in hand.
Many sellers can identify fast-moving products, or "SKUs," ahead of crunch time. Prepare them now, Zimberoff advises. "If you have some fast moving skus, they can be pre-picked and packed, ready for a label. Think about it. If you are sure you will ship 8 widgets in standalone packaging in the next few days, why not have them packed and ready now?"
Have a staffer pre-pack your list of SKUs at the beginning of the week (every week), or whenever there is down time. "Maybe this is what your junior picker does as part of getting trained," he said.
In terms of shipping services, "try flat rate services on for size," he said. "Evaluate Priority Mail Flat Rate and FedEx One Rate." And can you soft pack? "You can get great rates on Priority Mail items up to 34" (L+W). If your items can go in a larger mylar bag, do it," he said.
Another tip - do 100% ground delivery in your shipping zone. "FedEx and UPS have rather large service areas around your location that offer Ground delivery within two business days," he said. Why use an express or costlier service within those areas?
Communicate with Customers, Diversify
Like last year, this year will also be a shortened season, Endicia's Khechfe said, which means it's critical for online businesses to have the right shipping strategy in place to prepare for last-minute purchases. "E-tailers need to know their cutoff dates for delivery by December 25, for all carriers they use, and communicate these dates to customers."
Khechfe said sellers should also use a mix of shipping carriers to make sure they're offering the best options for customers.
Endicia works closely with the USPS, and Khechfe said that will continue to be a great option for merchants this holiday season. "The Postal Service recently lowered Priority Mail rates just in time for the holidays, making it an affordable option for packages weighing between 1 and 40 pounds. Priority Mail also delivers in 1-3 business days (compared to 5-6 days for FedEx and UPS ground), making it a great and affordable option for those last-minute holiday shoppers."
Understand Shipping Carrier Mail-By Dates
Knowing each of the shipping carrier's cut-off dates is crucial to getting packages to recipients in time for the Christmas holiday. Here is more information for the three major shipping carriers.
UPS: Two things are especially worth noting if you use UPS. First, the good news: it will offer normal pickup and delivery for all service levels the day after Thanksgiving. In prior years, there was only service for UPS air and international packages on that Friday.
The bad news? UPS is not guaranteeing delivery for its economy services beginning December 11th through Christmas Eve. "The UPS service guarantee is suspended for UPS Ground and UPS Standard packages, our most economical services, picked up or scheduled for delivery between December 11 and December 24. It may take a day or two longer than might be the usual transit time."
UPS air and international shipments picked up or delivered within the United States are guaranteed throughout the holiday season. Commitment times for air and international shipments delivered within the U.S. will be extended by 90 minutes on the following days: November 28, December 18-24 and December 31. So a UPS Next Day Air package normally scheduled for delivery by 10:30 am may not arrive until noon.
We spoke to UPS spokesperson Susan Rosenberg in September, who explained how the company has been preparing for what could be another blockbuster season for ecommerce. You can read details in How UPS Is Gearing Up for the Holiday Shopping Season.
Get a PDF file with the UPS holiday shipping schedule - look for the link on this page of the UPS website.
FedEx: A FedEx spokesperson said the last day to ship with FedEx Express for pre-Christmas delivery is Tuesday, December 23. The last day to ship with FedEx Ground for pre-Christmas delivery is Wednesday, December 17. "FedEx is known for its speed and reliability, but we encourage our customers not to wait until the last moment to ship their holiday gifts to friends and family," the company is advising customers.
USPS: To ensure that holiday mail and packages are delivered in time for Christmas (December 25, 2014), the Postal Service recommends the following mailing and shipping deadlines:
Dec. 2: First-Class Mail International
Dec. 2: Priority Mail International
Dec. 10: Priority Mail Express International
Dec. 15: Standard Post
Dec. 17: Global Express Guaranteed
Dec. 20: First-Class Mail
Dec. 20: Priority Mail
Dec. 23: Priority Mail Express (Priority Mail Express postage refund eligibility is adjusted for shipments mailed Dec. 22–25.)
Endicia created a 2014 USPS Holiday Shipping Deadline flyer (in PDF format) and recommended businesses print it out and post it in their shipping departments as a reference.
Learn from Experience
We went back to the archives to see what tips online sellers offered last year with regard to holiday shipping. Tips we heard from sellers included:
- Add messaging to websites and product listings about delivery dates;
- Communicate closely with customers;
- Shut off cheap-but-slow delivery options prior to the Christmas holiday;
- Pay out-of-pocket to send last-minute orders expedited to avoid customer disappointment and poor ratings.
Some sellers go to the extreme of actually shutting off all of their listings the week before Christmas to avoid any drama. For example, a seller wrote on the eBay boards in mid-December last year, "To avoid all those "why didn't it arrive in 48 hours like eBay promised" types of Buyers in the frenzy before Christmas, I'm planning to put my eBay Store into "Vacation" mode this week on either Monday or Tuesday and leave it that way until the 24th."
Be Prepared for Holiday Shopping Events
Consumers, especially those looking for a bargain, are heavily influenced by certain key dates - and it's not just Black Friday anymore. Shopping on Thanksgiving Day has become more acceptable both online and offline, and those wanting to support small businesses in their community are encouraged to shop locally on Small Business Saturday.
Here are some key events that will impact shopping activity in the U.S. and Canada:
November 27 Thanksgiving Day (U.S.)
November 28 Black Friday
November 29 Small Business Saturday
December 1 Cyber Monday
December 2 Giving Tuesday GivingTuesday.org
December 8 Green Monday
December 16 - 24 Hanukkah
December 18 Free Shipping Day
December 25 Christmas Day
December 26 Boxing Day
Dec. 26 - Jan. 1 Kwanzaa
International holidays include China's Singles Day on November 11, Indian holiday Diwali, and Muslim holiday Eid Al-Adha - the latter two holidays fell on October 23 and October 4, respectively.
United States Postal Service Vice President of Sales Cliff Rucker told EcommerceBytes the Postal Service is expecting much higher package volumes this holiday season - "likely in the range of 450 to 475 million packages, which equates to roughly 12-14% percent growth over last year" - look for our interview with Cliff Rucker this week in the Newsflash newsletter.
You don't need to have a meteorologist on staff to cope with holiday shipping, but you do need to keep an eye on weather events and alerts issued by shipping carriers. Be prepared, manage shoppers' expectations, and communicate with customers.
We'll be following the holiday shopping (and shipping) season carefully, so stay tuned to EcommerceBytes Newsflash and blogs as well.
With Halloween now behind us, and retail sites and online marketplaces launching holiday marketing campaigns, all we can say is, Happy Selling!
About the author:
Ina Steiner is co-founder and Editor of EcommerceBytes and has been reporting on ecommerce since 1999. She's a widely cited authority on marketplace selling and is author of "Turn eBay Data Into Dollars" (McGraw-Hill 2006). Her blog was featured in the book, "Blogging Heroes" (Wiley 2008). Follow her on Twitter at @ecommercebytes and send news tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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