As we all know, 2020 is certainly not a typical year. A new, transformed reality is affecting just about every aspect of everyday life and business, including holiday shipping.

The global pandemic is driving record numbers of online orders and a later-than-usual Thanksgiving is condensing the holiday season, resulting in a capacity crunch, which is already leading to service delays for small package networks. Even though parcel carriers are seeking to alleviate some of the pressure by bringing in thousands of new workers, these networks won’t find relief until the start of 2021.

With Thanksgiving landing on November 26 this year, shippers have just 27 days between Black Friday and Christmas Eve to race their gifts through the small package networks. This daunting challenge is augmented by the fact that additional disruptions and delays will likely be spurred by the world’s ongoing battle with the coronavirus.

Successfully navigating this extraordinary peak season requires companies to be more creative and flexible. While extra holiday hustle is nothing new in the parcel shipping space, forward-thinking shippers should be prepared to adjust if they want to deliver a five-star customer experience in today’s never-normal world. While much has changed, some rules are the same, such as remaining ever-mindful of the “last shipping days” for USPS, UPS, and FedEx.

During these un-chartered times, it is more important than ever to ramp up and make every effort to get shipments out as quickly as possible. If you anticipate a last-minute holiday rush, make sure your shipments go out on or before the deadline dates to give your parcel the best chance to arrive by Christmas Eve.

FedEx’s last days to ship calendar is online here and UPS publishes its holiday deadlines here. Look for USPS cutoff dates for holiday shipping any time. As part of their holiday parcel checklist, shippers should maintain an ongoing awareness of each parcel carrier’s “last day to ship.” In COVID-19 reality, things can — and often do — change rapidly. Be sure to stay on top of any news and updates coming from your parcel delivery service providers.

Now that you know the “last days to ship,” you can follow the tips below to pre-emptively overcome obstacles to meeting these cutoff dates.

Talk with your carriers. Proactively communicate with carriers regarding any expected increase in volume and any additional equipment requirements (e.g., feeders or bulk-type pickups). This will help your carriers plan ahead and provide some assurance that there will be capacity to accommodate your volume spikes or allow you to make alternative arrangements.

Next, talk with your customers. Companies should proactively communicate anticipated delays and properly set customers’ expectations on their websites and in any email communications. This could be as simple as featuring the holiday cutoff shipment dates prominently on the first page of your website.

Know the limits. Shippers should clearly understand any potential volume limits or caps that may be put in place by the carriers. Because these constraints can impact your ability to deliver on time, be sure to discuss them with your carrier.

Explore your options. Shippers should also understand their carrier options and negotiate favorable agreement terms to properly leverage all national, regional, and postal carriers. Having a “Plan B” in place is always a good idea during the busiest times of the year.

Start your product promos early. Don’t wait until the last minute to kick off your holiday promotions. Starting early will help you pull volume forward to avoid peak shipping periods and allow time for expected delays.

Factor in holiday business schedules. For example, USPS is closed for all of the major federal holidays. With delivery times varying between its services, knowing the cutoff dates and hours of operation are both important.

Here’s a final bonus tip: You don’t have to go it alone. Getting a package to a customer’s doorstep on-time requires a lot of work, but help is available. Third-party logistics providers can custom-engineer a point-to-point solution that supports your strategy to meet all your shipping goals.

By turning the tips outlined above into tactics, shippers strike a balance between growing their company’s holiday sales and clearly communicating the risk to customers of passing the carrier's “suggested date” for accepting pickup for a Christmas delivery. Through full transparency and good information, shippers can effectively manage customer expectations while syncing with the carriers that will deliver the goods to their doorsteps. In the end, knowledge, organization, transparency, and ongoing communication are the keys to managing the unprecedented challenges of the 2020 peak season while protecting profit and customer experience.

Charles Moore is Vice President of Parcel Solutions at Transportation Insight.