Say the word peak, and the word season often won’t be far behind.
Most sellers have at least one such major sales surge per year (usually around the holidays). And many are lucky enough to experience more than one.
The good news is, these spikes can be amazing for your business’s bottom line. The bad news is, they represent a huge mountain of shipping and fulfillment challenges, including some that could lead to an avalanche of extra expenses and delays if you’re not careful.
In light of that, here are five high-altitude tips you might want to consider pursuing before your next peak season rolls around. Some are strategic. Others are more tactical. But all have the potential to help you stay on top of the customer experience when it matters most.
Think About Your Summit Team Now
World-class climbers know that mountaineering is a collaborative sport. Whether you’re a superstar like Ed Viesters or a newbie who’s decided to try climbing Mt. Rainier on a lark, it usually requires an army of highly proficient professionals to help you reach the summit.
In a similar vein, the success or failure of your peak season fulfillment will often depend on having an adequate number of qualified warehouse personnel to support you every step of the way, including many that will be needed only when your order levels are at their highest.
Don’t wait until your company is in the midst of peak to address the question of how you’ll find these essential individuals. Just as important, don’t assume you’ve got this issue under control simply because you have a few temporary staffing firms on speed dial. Even their large pool of personnel is not unlimited, and when it comes to times like the holidays, many other companies could be vying for their help at the same time.
Accept the Fact That the Learning Curve Is Steeper than It Appears
One of the biggest mistakes many mountaineers make is assuming that certain slopes are easy simply because they’re climbable.
That same kind of hubris can also be found in many e-commerce fulfillment centers at peak season, because when things get extra busy, it’s tempting to throw new or temporary team members right into the deep end as soon as they walk through the door. After all, it’s not that hard to pick and pack an order correctly, right? Wrong.
Although it may not be feasible to train temps as thoroughly as full-time team members, sharing a Readers Digest Condensed version of your most important processes can go a long way towards creating the precision your company needs to get orders correctly filled and shipped out the door. So can a strategic division of labor that delegates your facility’s most complex tasks to your long-term, most highly skilled team members while reserving the simplest ones for temps.
Understand and Address Your Supply Chain’s Outer Limits
Safety-minded mountain climbers are fond of saying that getting to the top is optional but getting back is mandatory. One key to the latter is setting a sensible stopping point/turnaround time on summit day.
Whether you know it or not, your warehousing and fulfillment center has a similar line in the sand: when the parcel truck shows up.
Before peak season starts, look for ways to re-toggle one or more of your standard operating procedures to ensure that fewer of your daily shipments will miss this mark. It may mean getting an earlier start to a facility’s workday, setting up a temporary cross-dock area for hot products or asking your inbound suppliers to drop product off sooner. Or it may involve negotiating with these carriers to see if you can buy an extra hour or so each day (although your 3PL may have better luck achieving this than you, particularly if it’s a higher volume shipper with better-established carrier relationships).
On a related note, make sure you have a clearly defined and well-communicated daily cut-off time for customer orders, too. Many e-commerce consumers may not realize that an order has come in way too late to make it in the queue for next-day or two-day delivery unless you take the time to spell it out for them in no uncertain terms.
You’ll Breathe Easier if You Have the Proper Equipment
There are some individuals who can climb even the highest of summits without the help of oxygen. By the same token there are some warehouses and fulfillment centers that can make do without a WMS.
But “can” rather than “should” is the operative word.
Just as oxygen plays a critical role in keeping climbers lucid and energized, a robust WMS is the lifeblood of an agile peak season operation for e-commerce fulfillment companies.
Among other things, it can help your company receive, slot and allocate inventory far more quickly and efficiently. Equally important it prevents many of the picking errors and other shipping mistakes that frequently go hand-in-hand with purely manual operations.
Even if your company has had scores of successful peak seasons without such a system, don’t assume you can indefinitely forgo using one. As your sales grow, it will become increasingly more difficult for your fulfillment to maintain the same service levels without the benefit of strong IT support.
Expect the Unexpected
On a final note, if Mt. Everest has taught us anything, it’s that no peak is ever 100% predictable – regardless of how often it’s been successfully conquered in the past. Each climbing season poses its own unique collection of challenges, opportunities and risks, and no one is guaranteed a successful or smooth trip to the top.
Peak sales seasons are no different, because even though some pain points (like carrier capacity) remain the same, many new and different ones have an uncanny knack for emerging each year.
When they do, your company has two choices: You can allow these snafus to cast a large shadow over everything. Or you can work with your team members to address and adapt to these challenges while your peak is in full swing – and then focus on finding a more workable long-term solution once the dust from that surge has settled. The latter attitude may not help you move every mountain. But it’ll go a long way toward helping you climb the next one far more successfully.
Scott Guilmette is Vice President of Business Development for Amware Fulfillment, a national 3PL that helps brands scale warehouse fulfillment operations to keep pace with business growth. With fulfillment centers in every region of the country, Amware enables 1–2 day delivery to 98% of the United States.