The beginning of October used to mark the beginning of Autumn. Changing leaves, pumpkin spice, selecting a topical Halloween costume, streaming “The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown” for far too much money because you cut the chord. Ah, nostalgia. This year, it signifies something a little different. The start of the holiday season.

While things usually kick-off for consumers in November on Black Friday, things are expected to start as early as mid-October this year. And here’s one more twist: most holiday shopping is likely to be online. This follows the current eCommerce trends.

Since the Coronavirus took hold of the world in March, online sales have surged by $107 billion. Many Americans see online shopping as a safe alternative to visiting brick and mortar stores. In fact, 47% of Americans say they only plan to shop online for gifts this year, according to a survey conducted by Morning Consult. Of that same group, 19% of that group say they plan to start shopping earlier than usual.

Enter: Amazon Prime Day, which will be held on October 13-14. Typically held in July, the online shopping event is now perfectly positioned to overtake Black Friday as the official start to the holiday season.

In the following article, we’ll explore what makes the 2020 Holiday Shopping unique, including Prime Day, best practices for merchants, cutoff dates and returns.

Holiday Gift
Photo by Kari Shea

Amazon Prime Day 2020

Typically held in July, Amazon Prime Day 2020 was delayed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, C-NET reported. In September, the tech giant announced that the annual sale would be held on October 13 and 14.

Prime Day is Poised to Overtake Black Friday

With prospects for in-person “doorbusters” on Thanksgiving night and Black Friday morning squashed due to health concerns, the rescheduled Prime Day is positioned to be the official start to the holiday shopping season. And it is expected to “make online retail bigger than ever,” Axios reported.

The newly autumnal Prime Day is expected to bring in sales worth $26 billion worldwide and $6 billion in the US, according to Axios. If that sounds like a lot, you’re correct. This effectively pushes forward 10% of sales from Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday by about a month, according to the outlet.

All in all, online sales on this holiday are expected to be up 30% from 2019. For the holiday season in general, revenue from eCommerce stores is predicted to increase by 90% due to a mix of orders sent out for delivery and seasonal offers for in-store pickup.

What to Know About Holiday Shopping and Shipping in 2020

The earlier-than-ever holiday season may come as a surprise to merchants, but it shouldn’t catch anyone off guard. Any successful business owner, no matter how green they are, knows that the key to navigating the holiday season is planning, planning, planning.

Know the customer timeline

To accommodate rush around the holiday season, which could begin as soon as October 10 but is expected to really kick off around Prime Day, retailers should pad typical shipping estimates with delivery lead time to accommodate for any delays in fulfillment. This manages customer expectation and will soften the blow around any delay-related disappointment.

Even if your typical shipping system is airtight, peak season tends to complicate things. Experienced sellers always leave an extra day or two for wiggle room, but the holiday season simply requires longer lead times due to the international surge in online orders. Plus, other issues like stock shortages, poor weather or disruption in the supply chain are more likely to happen this time of year.

In the case of holiday shipping, it’s best to plan for the worst and be surprised by the best. Everyone is pleasantly surprised when a package arrives several days early, but when it arrives several days late that can mean showing up to a gift exchange empty-handed and embarrassed.

Plan Early

Many companies begin planning for the holiday season as early as September. Often that looks like taking stock of data from the previous holiday season to help prepare. Here are some examples of figures that could be helpful to look at:

  • Best-selling products
  • Total revenue
  • Shipping costs
  • Busiest business days
  • Priority countries and any corresponding restrictions

By using historical data to fortify your plan, you will be able to stock up on inventory, prepare packaging materials, and update your checkout process so things run smoothly during peak season.

To plan effectively and accurately, business owners must be acutely aware of their customer timeline and lifecycle.

Communicate with Your Customers

Transparency is key when building a relationship with customers. This establishes trust and a positive impression. Communication, often to what seems like the point of over-communication, is imperative with eCommerce — especially around the holiday season. Consider this: Many people are trusting you and your business to fulfill their time-sensitive orders, presumably gifts, without delay or damage. How will you do that?

Have a Clear Shipping Policy

Ahead of the holiday season, your shipping policy should be in — so sorry for this — ship shape. Before anything can be packed or labeled, your shipping policy must be updated and accessible to customers. This ought to be done in tandem with other preparations for the holiday season in Q3, like stocking inventory, hiring and maybe even fortifying your server and tech accommodate for the increased number of visitors. Although these tasks seem varied, they are all focused on one thing: the customer experience. From browsing to post-purchase, things should run smoothly, look aesthetically pleasing and be clearly communicated so there are no surprises — pleasant or otherwise.

One thing to especially communicate with customers around the holiday season, both in the shipping policy and at check out, is time needed for delivery and tracking. One way to make sure customers are happy and calm around the holidays to ensure they can access the tracking updates seamlessly. It’s typically best practice to send out tracking updates via branded emails that link to a custom landing page on your website.

Use Shipping as a Marketing Tool

Marketing is more than the emails you send, the “swag” you hand out or what you post on social media. Marketing is your business plan. Marketing is international shipping, good customer service and on-time delivery. It’s also giving the people what they want, like free shipping.

Big box companies, like Amazon, have normalized free shipping to the point that many customers aren’t willing to make an order without it. During the holiday season, it can make or break your business’s bottom line, as 65% of consumers look up free shipping minimums before even adding items to their cart. Plus, 9 out of 10 customers said it’s a deciding factor when they shop online.

At first glance, it may seem like the financially wise decision to implement universal free shipping year-round. After all, it attracts customers, right? Not quite. It’s actually quite savvy to acknowledge the risks associated with doing so permanently. Instead of opting to make free shipping a seasonal holiday offer.

Here are some suggestions as to how:

  • Apply free shipping to best-sellers
  • Apply free shipping to “bundles” of items
  • Offer free shipping during the holiday season, raising prices to accommodate for the business cost
  • Make free shipping available to customers who spend a certain amount above average

Don’t Forget About Returns

Holiday Returns

An oft-overlooked part of the holiday shopping experience is the return policy (just, in case of course!). Returns are incredibly important, especially for online sellers and shoppers. A return can make or break the post-purchase experience, turning a buyer from scorned to sweetened. They are so important that 89% of repeat customers who had a pleasant return experience are likely to order again, according to Return Magic.

So, how do you make returns feel positive? One way is to offer free shipping on returns. As we have previously covered, shoppers love free shipping and see it as a motivator. Another way is to communicate with your customers. With that in mind, make sure that your return policy is clearly outlined in your shipping policy and communicated to shoppers at checkout and in email communications. A third solution, and perhaps the most obvious, is to do your best to avoid returns altogether. Here are three ways to promote customer satisfaction, ultimately avoiding returns.

  1. Include accurate size guides. Simply put: No one likes ordering something in the wrong size. Make sure to take international sizing into account depending on where you ship!
  2. Share high-quality product images. Expectation vs Reality memes can be amusing...until they happen to your customers on Christmas morning, that is. Sharing realistic photographs of products on their listing manages expectations and mitigates any disappointment.
  3. Solicit product reviews. The beauty of the internet is that it gives you a direct line to your customers — and it gives your customers a direct line to each other. Sharing reviews from real customers helps to manage customer expectations and build trust.

Set Clear Shipping Deadlines

How will you accommodate the swell in orders? Will you be able to make the deadline in time for key dates? What if you run out of stock of best-sellers? These are all important questions eCommerce merchants should ask themselves and be able to answer.

You can effectively manage customer expectations by setting your own ship-by dates for customers who are local, domestic and international. Promoting these dates on your eCommerce site and through email marketing will encourage customers to make purchases ahead of the peak dates, subsequently avoiding any of the above-mentioned issues.

Be Aware of Courier Cut Off Dates

No one wants to be disappointed on the morning of a gift exchange. That’s why it’s important to let your customers know about shipping deadlines. You can do this by prominently displaying them at checkout or sending out reminders via email marketing. By offering a range of shipping options, you give customers the agency to compare prices and to decide which shipping option is best suited for their needs.

One more time, for the people in the back: Transparency is key. As you plan, be mindful of each courier’s cutoff date, AKA their “last day to ship.” It’s typically best practice to follow mailing and shipping deadlines for expected delivery by December 25th, tacking on additional days packaging, delivery lead time or anticipated shipping delays as you see fit.

The following are the 2020 holiday season cutoff dates for the major US couriers, either announced or estimated based on information from 2019:

USPS Service Date
Retail Ground Tuesday, December 15, 2020
First Class Mail Tuesday, December 22, 2020
Priority Mail Tuesday, December 22, 2020
Priority Mail Express Wednesday, December 23, 2020
SmartPost Services Wednesday, December 9, 2020
Ground Tuesday, December 15, 2020
Home Delivery Tuesday, December 15, 2020
Express Saver Monday, December 21, 2020
2Day Service Tuesday, December 22, 2020
Overnight services Wednesday, December 23, 2020
Ground Friday, December 11, 2020
3 Day Select Monday, December 21, 2020
2nd Day Air Services Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Win Big During Peak Season

During the holiday season, it can be difficult to stand out from the crowd. But one way to ensure your business leaves a lasting impression is by being prepared for peak season. As the holiday season beings earlier and earlier each year, like before candy corn consumption is socially acceptable, it’s imperative that your planning also starts as early as possible.

Easyship makes holiday shipping a breeze, even with unprecedented roadblocks. This is made possible by partnering with the leading couriers to offer over 250+ shipping solutions, globally. We also give you the opportunity to gain a personal, competitive edge by creating branded tracking emails and packing slips, providing your customers with a holistic, branded experience.

Sign up for an Easyship account today to supercharge your holiday shipping!

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