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How your small business can skate through the holiday madness

Logistical chaos during the holidays can be a nightmare — here’s how to overcome it.

First there’s Black Friday, then Cyber Monday, followed by the holiday shopping season and Boxing Day (or week, as it’s now become known). For many small businesses, this stretch of the year can make or break your goals — and can be the difference between being in the red and the black.

But it’s also a logistical nightmare. Any shopper can attest to the trials and tribulations of holiday shopping — they’re eyeing those winter boots at 50 per cent off (and had to fight their way through a crowd of grumpy shoppers in an overheated store), but they’re only available in sizes 5 and 12. Or they’re trying to purchase those boots online, but the site is down because it can’t handle spikes in traffic.

This leads to frustration and typically drives customers away. For business owners though, it’s not an easy problem to resolve. You require enough inventory to get through the season (and to sustain all those deals and bargains), but you don’t want to end up with excessive inventory before the leaner winter months.

While you may not have an inventory management department like Amazon or Walmart, there are tips and tools to help you manage the retail and business chaos of the holidays.

Take stock of what happened last year

What worked, and what didn’t?

“Did you ship items too late last year and they didn’t make it to customers on time? Did you spend time optimizing your website and end up avoiding traffic jams on your site? Did you identify which products sold out faster than others?” writes Amine Khechfé in Multichannel Merchant.

Have a plan in place to track what worked and what didn’t, which can help you next year — especially if you’re a new business.

Take stock of inventory

Analyzing last year’s sales can help you anticipate holiday demand for products (and to know which ones are more likely to linger on shelves).

Of course, this involves a bit of guesswork, but cloud-based supply chain solutions can help you analyze data and even share that data with suppliers.

During peak periods, stay on top of point-of-sale data to see if you’re running low on hot-selling items, and make sure you’re getting inventory updates from suppliers so you can plan for any shortages.

Get your shipping in ship-shape

Almost half of consumers (47 per cent) say free shipping is one of the most important factors during the holiday season, according to the U.S. National Retail Federation’s 2016 Retail Holiday Planning Playbook.

Shipping can be an issue for smaller businesses during the holiday season — and delays can lead to unhappy customers. Get around this by offering free shipping to customers who place their order early.

     Related: Should you offer a free trial on your website?           

Optimize your website

If you offer ecommerce capabilities on your website, make sure it’s optimized to handle traffic spikes during the holidays — otherwise, you’ll end up with abandoned shopping carts and unhappy customers.

It could be worth investing in a website monitoring tool. If you work with a cloud provider, you can scale up your resources as needed without incurring big costs — and they’ll manage the details.

Hire seasonal staff

Depending on your business, you may need to hire seasonal staff to work retail, pick and pack orders in your warehouse or fill in for full-timers going on vacation. This is no easy feat. First, you must find qualified workers — then you must recruit, train and manage those workers.

Job site Monster recommends hiring 25 per cent more staff than you actually need, “because a good number of employees will have requests for time off and other unexpected commitments that could leave you in the lurch.”

Consider using job boards with a mobile-friendly application process. Also, use social media to recruit talent and ask existing employees for referrals. (Consider offering them a referral bonus as an incentive to find the right staff).

Be prepared for post-holiday returns

Even when the holidays come to an end, there’s no time for rest as shoppers come back to stores in droves to return and exchange gifts.

This process is made even more complicated with the consumer preference to buy online yet return in-store (which means it’s important to have an omnichannel strategy in place for inventory visibility). No doubt, this can be a pain, but try to look at it as an opportunity.

If you’re able to simplify the process of returns and exchanges — say, by offering online self-service tools or extending the time frame for accepting returns — you’ll keep customers happy and you’re more likely to see repeat business.


Up Next: Omnichannel is much more than just a physical store selling goods online.

Will ‘omnichannel’ start a retail revolution?

Vawn Himmelsbach

Vawn Himmelsbach is a freelance writer and editor based in Toronto. She has covered technology and travel for 15 years, for media outlets such as, The Globe & Mail, Metro News, ITBusiness, PCworld Canada and Computerworld Canada. She also spent three years living abroad and working as an Asian correspondent.

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