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Peak Season Preparation: What You Need to Know

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"By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail." ~Benjamin Franklin

Peak season preparation is always on the mind of fulfillment professionals. For some brands, the holiday season represents as much as one-third of total annual sales and defines whether or not the year is a successful one.

Forecasts predict sales growth of around 4% in the retail sector during 2017, mostly driven by sales at the tail end of the year. As we approach Thanksgiving, site traffic surges, stores are crammed with consumers, and sales rise quickly.

are you ready sign

This is why peak season planning is already underway for businesses of all sizes, especially brands that are household names.

Ramping Up Peak Season Preparation

Handling an anticipated spike in orders requires two things: accurate forecasting and exact planning. You need to know how much inventory will be needed to meet demand and a detailed schedule for how it will make its way into warehouses and onto store shelves.

Even at this early stage, peak season fulfillment becomes a priority concern. Failure to perform during this key retail period can reverse all the good work a brand has achieved in the preceding 10 months.

This advance planning, which begins almost as soon as the preceding holiday season comes to a close, affords big brands more control over the experience that customers will have as we head into the final quarter of the year.

Where to Begin

Effectively preparing for peak season fulfillment means simultaneously looking back and forecasting the future.

It's important to take the lessons of past peaks and understand what you can do to improve, while also acknowledging that markets move quickly and every seasonal spike brings its own unique challenges.

peak season preparation charts

To walk that line successfully, consider the following approaches you can take to peak season preparation.

Start with the previous season

First and foremost, take some time to analyze last year's holiday performance. We can learn a lot from the successes and failures of previous seasons, especially the most recent. Questions to ask include:

  • What went well and where did your brand fall short?
  • Are there common bottlenecks that went unresolved in 2016?
  • Which service areas prompted the most complaints from customers?
  • Are there suppliers who failed to live up to expectations last year?

Answering questions like these while the period is fresh in the memory gives provides a clear picture of the challenges that you need to address next time.

Form a cross-functional team to ensure nothing is overlooked. Identifying recurring pain points will help you to prioritize objectives for the 2017 peak.

Ask outside the company

As you review past performance, try to move beyond an internal focus. Your customers, suppliers, and service providers are all valuable sources of ideas for improvement.

Prioritize customer feedback above all others. These are the people you are trying to please and their complaints or ideas are the first port of call for improvement. From there, remember that an effective fulfillment partner should be able to suggest practical solutions for supply chain challenges. Whether they've been serving you for many years or just a few months, their experience and expertise can be invaluable.

Bring Key Departments Together

A silo mentality is one of the quickest ways to torpedo a painstakingly crafted peak season plan. Without input from all key departments - procurement, operations, distribution, and sales/marketing - there is potential for huge gaps to develop.

Cross-functional planning teams are one way to avoid this happening. Schedule a regular meeting with representatives from these departments to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to highlight potential issues and get input from colleagues who can help them.

For example, buyers will be able to warn sales reps of any new products or suppliers who are as yet unproven. That risk could then be managed, by spreading orders for popular products across a handful of suppliers or getting those shipments moving earlier to build some slack into the supply chain.

Communicate Supplier Requirements

"Early and often" should be your mantra when it comes to relaying seasonal requirements to suppliers.

Often this means communicating complex instructions to counterparts who are half a world away, in a different time zone, with the significant potential for cultural differences to cause confusion. Reviewing the recent performance of suppliers is especially crucial here, as you can highlight those who didn't quite make the grade in previous years.

If you decide they can't be replaced, set up additional training materials and reiterate - or revise - service level agreements to make it clear that last year's issues must not be repeated.

Set "Milemarker" Dates in Stone

Even when planning starts early, getting key dates on the calendar helps to keep all parties focused on the end-to-end peak season schedule. Use your cross-functional meetings to define critical activities, then assign dates and remind everyone involved that they are rigid deadlines to meet.

These dates could include:

  1. Latest order placed date
  2. Earliest shipment date (from origin)
  3. Last shipment date (from origin)
  4. Latest arrival date (at destination)
  5. Supplier cancel date
  6. Last date for air freight
  7. In-warehouse date for retail stores
  8. In-warehouse date for e-commerce orders
  9. Marketing campaign dates (start/stop)
  10. In-store date
  11. Custom sales dates (promotions and/or discount periods)
  12. Key calendar sales dates:
    • Pre-Cyber Week
    • Pre-Thanksgiving
    • Black Friday
    • Cyber Monday
    • Tuesday After Thanksgiving (Giving Tuesday)

This list is by no means exhaustive. Take advantage of your cross-departmental team sessions to create a comprehensive list of every notable event. You can then use this to create your final schedule of mile marker dates, safe in the knowledge that no crucial moments have been overlooked.

Seasonal Staffing Requirements

As this time of year rolls around, maintaining service level agreements becomes more important than ever. That often means more people on hand to pick, pack, and ship all those holiday orders. Even the most robust inbound cargo plan falls to pieces if there aren't enough warehouse workers to get those orders on their way.

These five seasonal staffing recommendations from Capacity's CSO Thom Campbell provide some insights on managing this tricky task.

warehouse worker cartoon

Ensuring order fulfillment runs smoothly during the peak season requires early review and analysis of current operations.

Probe for telltale signs of inefficiency where more critical weakness could show up as order levels increase. Successfully flagging these minor clues and making adjustments to keep potential problems under control means you can spend more time organizing and less effort putting out fires as peak season rolls around.

When combined with the communication standards and common planning activities mentioned above, you will give your brand a better chance to reliably delight customers at this critical time of year. 

Unlike the actual holidays, peak season preparation cannot come soon enough for supply chain professionals, who are always eager to navigate the period successfully.  If you could use some help to make that happen, contact us