Seven tips for peak season planning
Running a small business can be demanding year-round, but those stresses take on a new intensity during rush season. In fact, busy-season sales can make or break a small business's year.
While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to preparing for your busy season, we talked with some of our FedEx Small Business Grant Contest winners about what they have learned from previous peak seasons and how they prepare for the next ones.
Plan, plan and then plan some more
The key recommendation that we heard from grant winners is to start your planning as early as possible. Rush season will present a small business with unique challenges, so it’s important to control the issues that you can anticipate.
The grant winners use sales performance figures from previous years to forecast for their busy season. Dana Donofree, who founded AnaOno, a lingerie company for the breast cancer community, stresses, “If you sell a manufactured product, you have to plan your inventory months in advance. Look at previous sales seasons, current inventory and any scaling of business you might expect so you can plan as accurately as possible. But remember, it is also an art.”
Periods of high-intensity sales can mean a boom in business for many companies, but grant winners say it's important to prepare for all production scenarios.
“You have to plan for both the upside and the downside,” says Judith Irving, founder and partner at Fat Toad Farm, maker of traditional goat’s milk caramel. “Your sales could be lower than you expect, so don't overcommit and expose your business to unnecessary risk. Be prepared for a production slowdown. On the other hand, sales may be higher, so figure out how you can maximize production to meet demand, if needed.”
Develop a campaign strategy
Sand Cloud is an eco-friendly, beach lifestyle brand that donates 10% of its profits toward marine conservation. Each member of the team — about 20 employees in various countries — is involved in creating a marketing campaign that helps promote the product line for that particular selling season.
“We orchestrate and create a campaign behind the different holidays,” says Steven Ford, one of the company’s three co-founders. What products do they want to discount? What channels do their buyers use? What content and visuals should they develop? And, most importantly, what story is Sand Cloud sharing with consumers?
In addition, Steven says, while a strong campaign is essential, priming the market is vital to the campaign’s success.
“Hyping up what’s about to come, making it the biggest thing in the world and getting people excited for it,” he explains, helps create a buzz and build anticipation. Businesses that don’t create excitement about their campaign, Steven says, “are shooting themselves in the side. They’re limiting their potential results.”
Make your website bulletproof
If you’re selling online, it’s important to make sure your website can handle increased visits in preparation for periods of high-volume sales. Scrutinize how customers are using your site and how to optimize their experience to encourage return visits while ensuring the site is resistant to glitches in the system.
Analytics vendors can help with that process by using visual analytics tools that provide intelligence, including the locations where customers are engaging with content and how far customers scroll on your pages. You can use this information to help you position important elements on your website to get more clicks.
Using your company’s website to create a sense of urgency also helps stimulate shoppers. Sand Cloud added a countdown clock to let people browsing the site know when a product is about to sell out. An automatic code flags abandoned carts so when customers return to the site, they’re guided through the purchase process. Also, plan to optimize your website for search engines to attract new customers. Our grant winners advise you to pay close attention to your e-commerce processes like billing, fulfillment and returns to find any flaws before rush season pressure begins.
“Get your vulnerabilities straightened out as best as possible now,” says Judith of Fat Toad Farms. “Do not plan on any IT upgrades or platform changes once it gets past September. All those bugs need to be worked out now, and if your systems aren’t perfect, at least you know that you have to be vigilant in order to keep operations running smoothly.”
Prepare to staff up
Be realistic about your staffing needs. Because small-business owners can often do many things well, it can be easy to dismiss the need for help.
As Dana puts it, “If you, as a founder, are in high demand, you must have the staff available to help with the increase in sales and the work that goes into meeting demand. Gearing up with temporary help is an option that allows you, as the owner, to focus on the business and reach new customers during this critical moment.”
Paul Pallas, operations manager at SWISCO, a supplier of hard-to-find replacement hardware, experiences the same stresses. He says SWISCO hires college students as temporary staff to work in the warehouse during rush time. He cautions, "Do not hire permanent employees unless you need them for non-rush times of the year.” According to Paul, it’s key to hire and train new staff before rush begins to keep your business running smoothly during the high-volume period.
Pay attention to your customers
Busy seasons provide opportunities to build relationships with customers. With a little planning, you can navigate any customer service challenges and develop customer loyalties as a result.
“Customer service needs, like helping customers troubleshoot with shipments, any product issues and answering questions about seasonal promotions, increase during rush,” says Andrea Sreshta, co-founder of LuminAID, the inventor of a solar inflatable lantern. “It can be a lot of work to manage the inquiries, so we plan for the increased time needed.”
For Sand Cloud, a campaign isn’t over when the customers’ orders are shipped. Watching customers’ reviews in social media, encouraging their feedback and directly engaging with them helps the company’s success and growth.
“We’re making sure customers are happy with the product,” Steven says. “We try to get them to share reviews on their end, both through social and with their friends. And we find ways to creatively incentivize them to come back.”
Set expectations with customers
Setting expectations around the fulfillment process is an important element of customer service during high-intensity sales periods for e-commerce businesses like LuminAID. “We've learned that come busy times, understanding shipping deadlines and communicating those deadlines and cutoffs to customers in multiple places on your website and over email is important,” Andrea says.
Reacting to customers’ travel schedules during winter and spring breaks — the company’s busiest seasons — Sand Cloud introduced two-day and overnight shipping, so it now offers a blend of FedEx Express® and FedEx Ground® services.
“For people who do want to get it right away, they’re paying a little premium to make sure they have it for the weekend beach trip or for their travels, or a gift — or whatever it is. So we introduced [FedEx Express] earlier this year, and we've seen some success there,” Steven says.
Practice continuous improvement
When a peak season ends, the Sand Cloud team members don’t rest. In the interim, when sales are slower, they research customer needs, reflect on new products and designs, and identify tasks that need to be done before the next peak’s wave begins.
“We’re always looking at new business opportunities and researching creative ways to sell and market our products,” Steven says. “We do a lot of brainstorming within the team: How can we be better tomorrow than we were yesterday? In what new ways can we communicate directly to our customers?”
Dana, from AnaOno, agrees. “We now have a track record under our belt, based on years of success; we can use this information to create moments of growth,” she says. “Now, we are ready to take the learnings of previous rush seasons and apply them to our current rate of sales.”
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