Getting Ready for Peak

preparing for peak seasons of uk online retail and ecommerce sectors

For anyone outside retail, autumn is a time of foggy mornings entwining golden leaves, bobble hats, nights in by the fire and the slowly growing anticipation of Christmas and all the festive cheer that the Yuletide brings. For retailers it is a time of panic, long nights working and the need to boost sales. It even has a prosaic, non-Christmassy name: Peak.

 
Peak used to be the run up to Christmas, when retailers looked to be ready to cope with a massive influx of shoppers stocking up on stocking-fillers and gorging on groceries.
 
However, like everything else, the web has changed all that. Now the retail year can be broken down into a series of mini-peaks, while the end-of-year Christmas sales pinnacle now starts in November and carries on well into January – just in time to butt up against the first mini-peak of the new year, Valentine’s Day.
 
So how do you get ready for this rush of orders that starts anywhere from 11th November on Singles Day – a predominantly Chinese tradition that is, thanks to the internationalisation of eCommerce and appeal to Asian markets of UK goods, becoming a peak for some UK retailers – and carries on through Black Friday on to the January sales?
 
Well, start planning in January would be the obvious advice, but with peak season now almost upon us, here are some of the things you can do right now to be ready.
 

Check out what happened last year

 
The first port of call when preparing for peak is to look at what happened last year. When did ‘peak’ start, how did it progress and how did it tail off, should be the initial data points you consider. From there, you need to also delve back to see what sorts of marketing converted well – and not just in terms of content, look too at time of day and channel.
 
While shopper habits change, seeing how previous peaks have played out is a great insight into what you need to start to prepare – it will also give you a good insight into how changing devices and channels are being used by shoppers to research and buy, something we shall come to.
 

Be ready for pre-Peak

 
Don’t underestimate the incredibly organised. For some lucky people, peak starts in August when they get back from their summer holidays, so when looking at previous trends, sift back to see when you might have started to get some Christmas orders coming through. This will help you prepare what stock you need and to assess why all those Christmas-themed goods left over from last year, started to ship in September.
 

Get your festive marketing hat on

 
It’s never too early to get your Santa hat on, well from marketing perspective it isn’t. Start to draw up themed content that starts to sow the festive seeds – and it doesn’t have to start with full on Christmas stuff. Halloween is tipped to be a £500m sales bonanza for UK retailers this year, pretty much kicking off peak season. So, tap into that and the general warm glow of autumn and then start to roll out ever-more festive marketing as we run up to Black Friday on 23rd November. And don’t be afraid to get emotional: everyone waits with baited breath for the John Lewis Christmas ad to drop each year, for example.
 

Customise your packaging

 
As part of your festive marketing efforts start to customise your packaging to make it peak-appropriate. Remember, packaging is the only thing that reaches 100% of your customers, so use it to market what you are doing. You can start, ahead of Christmas, with some festive packaging or even with packaging that outlines your Black Friday and Christmas plans. Failing that, get some fliers printed and drop those into each package now to start to get your customers thinking about Black Friday deals and/or Christmas.
 

Social: build excitement

 
Continuing with the pre-Peak marketing theme, social media is the ideal place to build festive excitement. Of course, use social channels to specifically market what you are selling, but also use it more subtly to start to make people feel festive. Images of lovely Christmassy things and comments on others’ Christmassy posts is a start, but use your festive content to start to build that child-like excitement around how great the Yuletide is – and how much better it will be if they buy your products.
 

Be ready…

 
So far, we have looked at the ‘soft’ marketing prep you need to do around peak to encourage sales – but, if that is as successful as we all hope, then you have to be tactically ready for the influx of orders. The most important part of a successful online Peak lies in making sure that your site and associated technology is up to handling, well, peaks. The business media all watch Downdetector avidly around Black Friday to see who is coping and who isn’t – and there have been some big fails in the past. Even Amazon has come a-cropper.
 
You have to make sure that you have enough server space to handle the influx of traffic, as well as looking at how to dynamically handle such high levels of interest. Optimisation of caching – storing rendered experience for future use) will quickly provide customers with the content they expect. 90% of editorial content, like the home page, should be cached. Aim to cache 50%-70% of product-specific content, including search, product listings, and product details. Performance analytics can help you assess how well your caching is working.
 
Also look at how third parties can help you through plugins that can speed up checking for fraud and more.
 

…across devices

 
And be ready across all devices and channels. This year there will be more mobile commerce traffic than ever, not to mention shoppers coming from previously unused channels such as through voice devices such as Alexa and Google Home. Be ready!
 
According to research by Textlocal, sales have fundamentally changed with as many as 80% of consumers now engaging with retailers via their smartphones.
 
Last year, more than 90% of retailers took part in Black Friday and an incredible £1.4bn was spent in online sales in the UK on the day, an 11.7% increase year-on-year according to IMRG. A recent report from Textlocal shows a growth in online shopping via mobile with three quarters (75%) using their phones to browse the internet every day and an average monthly spend growing to £36.12, according to Ofcom 2017.
 
Social media is also going to be a place where mobile shoppers are also going to be looking to purchase from you. A global study of 111,899 internet users by GlobalWebIndex finds that 49% of UK and 53% of US consumers are now converting through social platforms. The most popular platform is Facebook, through which 39% of UK respondents stated they have made a purchase.
 
The same research highlights that when it comes to Black Friday and Cyber Monday campaigns, social shopping tendencies are amplified by as much as 66% in the UK, with only a quarter of respondents able to say they wouldn’t purchase through social media after seeing a sales offer during the discount weekend.
 

Hear their voice

 
As mentioned, there is going to be a boom this year in orders from voice devices. According to the Holiday Retail Outlook Report by Conversant, Epsilon and LoyaltyOne, a third (31%) of consumers made Christmas purchases via a voice assistant last year. With the likes of Argos launching Voice Shop, the company has got in to bed with Google Home to let shoppers reserve 20,000 Argos items to collect from store.
 
The Voice Shop service launches at a time when smart speakers are increasingly taking up residence in British homes. According to a YouGov study, one in ten households in the UK now has a digital home assistant and voice shopping is forecast to be worth £3.5 billion in the UK by 2022 . Sales of smart speakers have grown 151% year-on-year at Argos.
 
In fact, recent research by Adobe suggests that half of US households will have a smart speaker of some description by the end of 2018 – with many getting one to service Black Friday or as Christmas presents.
 
But what is interesting is that Google Home also works on mobile phones – and the combination of mobile and voice is going to start to gain traction this peak. This is something that you need to get on top of this year, as Peak 2019 will be all about voice.
 

Have stock ready

 
Getting your site ready – not least for the influx of new channels – but if you don’t have the stuff to sell them, then you are sunk. This is the biggest sales opportunity of the year and you have to be ready. Referring to what happened last year will help you plan stock levels, but you have to make sure you have enough… unless you want to go down the WIGIG (when it’s gone, it’s gone) route. This can be an interesting tactic around peak events such as Black Friday, but you have to make it really clear in your pre-Peak marketing what is going on to avoid disappointment.
 

Have shipping options and solutions in place

 
Along with stock, you need to also have your shipping ready. Making sure you have a range of shipping options on hand is essential and can be used as a marketing hook too. It is also worth making sure you have all the latest ‘last shipping date’ to make it for Christmas clearly marked-up on your site. This can inspire people to buy and also will avoid disappointment.
 

Be ready for returns

 
The unfortunate downside of peak is that, while you hopefully sell a lot, you also see a lot of returns – a peak of returns in Q1 usually. Be ready to receive these and make sure that the cost of shipping them and processing them is factored into your pricing. It is also worth having in mind a sale strategy to off-load this returned stock in the new year and recoup costs.
 

In conclusion

 
As you read this peak has started: it started with Halloween and will continue through Singles Day (11th November) and on to Black Friday and right up to Christmas. Last year, it was referred to as Black Five-day. This year it is likely to a month or more of increasingly frantic sales – it is also being tipped as the Golden Quarter, so there is no time like the present to get ready. Check out what happened last year and build on that. Good luck.
 
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Paul Skeldon

Paul is an experienced eCommerce and logistics technology journalist, contributing to the Parcelhub blog on a monthly basis.

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