The 2021 Holiday Shipping Playbook

Brisk weather and brisk sales – it’s peak season again! The only thing that can dampen the good cheer for merchants? Knowing how hectic holiday shipping can be. Whether you’re new or seasoned in the ways of eCommerce holiday shipping, the dance always follows the same steps.

More than 50 million parcels ship per day between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Courier services slow under the strain, some shipments get delayed, and customer tensions run high. Your sales increase, gloriously, though you should be mindful of those new peak season surcharges. Thankfully, a little planning is all you need to waltz through the holidays with style, grace and plenty of cash in your pocket.

The 2021 Holiday Shipping Playbook

Use this complete playbook to plan for holiday shipping. You’ll gain solutions to the most persistent problems in holiday shipping, our best practices supported by proprietary data from over 2,000 businesses. We walk you through the steps to successful fulfillment, from courier selection to returns. Including how to:

  • Ace holiday shipping in 4 steps
  • Ship without paying holiday surcharges
  • Deliver on time using courier cutoff dates
  • Forecast demand for inventory control

This year, your holiday spirit can be one of relief.

Contents:

The eCommerce Holiday Landscape

Here's what sellers can expect in the upcoming holiday season.

How to Plan Your Holiday Shipping Strategy

Follow these steps to maintain your budget and provide arrivals.

2021 Shipping Cutoffs

Promote the following deadlines to encourage on-time deliveries.

The State of eCommerce Holiday Shipping 2021

Thanks to the pandemic, the 2020 holiday season was a breakout success for eCommerce. The rise of online sales is expected to continue in 2021, with revenues of this holiday season forecast at $206.88 billion – 11.3% higher than last year.

Customers have shown a preference for online purchasing over physical retail, with just 4 in 10 shoppers saying they plan on visiting stores this year. And of consumers who plan to take advantage of Black Friday, 78% say they plan to do so online.

Complicating this rosy outlook is a major backlog in freight shipping. Ports all over the world are backed up by weeks due to a shortage of container space and a tight labor market. As the holidays come into focus, some merchants are struggling to secure shipments for holiday inventory. This is on top of the usual slowdowns experienced by couriers as eCommerce activity ramps up.

What does this mean for eCommerce shippers?

  • Consider UPS® Ground over USPS Priority: If USPS Priority Mail has been your budget shipping option, look again. New 2021 peak season surcharges raised the price of Priority Mail by 6.3% and extended the service's delivery time from three days to five. Meaning, until surcharges expire on December 26, UPS® Ground is the more economical standard delivery option with Easyship's discounted rates – and likely more reliable.
  • Brace for returns: Return rates have risen to an average of 25% across all eCommerce niches, up to 40% in apparel. Develop a returns strategy that's both convenient for customers and efficient for you, then communicate your returns policy along the sales journey to reduce friction. To ease the post-holiday returns bottleneck, you can extend your returns window by a month or even two.
  • Consider help with fulfillment: 40% of shoppers will wait until the last 10 days before Christmas to buy gifts. Maybe recruit an extra set of hands for $15/hr on FB marketplace or ask friends. You can also partner with a fulfillment center. Outsourcing some of your shipments can help you hasten deliveries, reduce errors, and stay sane amidst the crush of holiday orders.
  • Be proactive about shipping: "When will my order arrive?" is the most-asked question in eCommerce over the holidays. Tracking details are a must-send, of course. Familiarize yourself with the courier cutoff dates to ensure packages arrive by Christmas. Late deliveries can tarnish your customer relationship and your reputation, plus spark returns.
holiday-cutoff-us

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The Customers' Timeline

Good news: peak season may be getting less intense. The popularity of Black Friday and Cyber Monday have deal-savvy shoppers looking for savings earlier in the season. A recent survey found that 1 in 3 online shoppers started their holiday shopping as early as Labor Day. A longer but steadier holiday rush makes it easier for brands to manage inventory and fulfillment.

That said, our data show that the greatest portion of holiday shipping (40%) happens between Black Friday and the first two weeks of December. The week of and before Christmas are much less busy, thankfully.

holiday shipments chart

According to Easyship Holiday shipping data, 2018

Want to appeal to early shoppers and simplify your holidays at once? Kick off your holiday promotions earlier in the season. This allows you to sidestep peak season surcharges and keep more of your margins. More importantly, you'll avoid bottlenecks that delay deliveries and impact customer satisfaction. Since online brands are competing on the axis of experience these days, it's best to approach shipping as a means to wow customers and retain them for life.

How to Plan Your Holiday Shipping Strategy

Step 1: Forecast Demand

Most companies begin to prepare for the peak season in Q3 around September. This means you'll want to evaluate two things: 1) demand for your products, 2) your business performance during last year's holidays. Pay attention to metrics like:

  • Best & worst selling products
  • Total Revenue
  • Total shipping costs
  • Cost to ship per item
  • Busiest days & weeks
  • Leading sales channels
  • Returns volume
  • Cost per return
  • Top-earning countries and regions domestically

Forecasting demand for the coming year is critical because it allows you to buy the right inventory and staff up based on data – not guesswork. To learn how to forecast demand, check out this full guide to demand forecasting in eCommerce. For best results, all your prep work should be grounded in data available in your webstore analytics.

Step 2: Stock Up on Inventory and Packaging

It's a headache to run out of packaging supplies as orders pile up. It's worse to run out of stock, lose sales, and regretfully inform customers their order's been canceled. You can sidestep these woes by procuring the right quantity of stock and supplies in leadup the madness.

Inventory

How much inventory you procure should be largely based on last year's sales numbers. But also consider your demand forecast alongside any marketing promotions or ongoing trends that will drive sales up or down. Once you set procurement objectives, communicate with your suppliers about your needs. The supply chain slowdown for 2021 will complicate your access to inventory, but you may be able to preorder stock to sidestep shortages.

Shipping Supplies

Every major courier offers free shipping boxes on their website. You can also stock up from retailers like Uline, who also sell supplies like tape and packing material. Your fulfillment flow can take a hit if you run short of these must-haves, so think about stockpiling extras someplace close at hand.

Step 3: Optimize Your Cart Experience for Shipping

Shipping has become a cornerstone of customer service for eCommerce shoppers. In fact, 2 in 3 online shoppers say they choose retailers based on the shipping and delivery options. Amazon set the bar high, so it's important to take steps to meet customers' expectations for a seamless experience.

3 Ways To Boosts Sales with Shipping


  • Provide flexible shipping options: Easyship's Rates at Checkout feature allows you to display three live courier options in checkout – the fastest, cheapest, and the best value. Choices for shipping make customers more likely to convert and stay loyal to your brand.
  • Provide accurate tax and duty: Avoid surprise fees that sink sales by showing all international shoppers the pre-calculated tax and duty amounts for their order. Full transparency of costs improves sales, plus allows buyers to prepay any fees to streamline the delivery experience.
  • Use an address verification system: Most shipments with an inaccurate address either fail or are delayed. Address verifcation is an automated feature of shipping platforms that ensures the recipients entries align with the address in courier delivery systems. This paves the way for a successful delivery every time.

Step 4: Automate Your Shipping

The holiday pre-season is a good time to test shipping automations that free you to do the meaningful work.

  • Automate returns: Returns are common enough that you want to put them on autopilot if possible. You can toggle on a setting in Easyship to have all return labels generated for you for easy addition to shipments. Easysip also updates all inventory based on scanned return labels for you, ensuring you have real-time visibility of stock as it comes and goes. Learn more about returns management for eCommerce.
  • Enhance the post-purchase experience: Make life easier for your customer service department by having transactional messages such as packing slips, tracking emails, and tracking landing pages automatically created and sent post-purchase. Maintain brand visibility and increase sales through these communications with these tips.
  • Set up shortcuts with shipping rules: You can create rule-based shipping preferences in Easyship to effectively program a range of actions, including courier selection, fulfillment, returns, and more. Our automation can shave hours off your operations flow, especially important during the busy holidays.
  • Access the cheapest rates always: If you don't have time to negotiate your own shipping rates, you can access our discounted shipping rates (up to70% off) and immediately offer them to your customers by working with a third-party reseller such as Easyship.

Step 5: Set Ship By Dates for Timely Deliveries

In just the US, upwards of 50 million packages are delivered daily by USPS, UPS and FedEx during the holidays. This staggering crush of parcels can derail your delivery schedule if you're not careful. To ensure customers receive their packages by Christmas, it's best to establish "ship-by" dates for each courier. Here's how.

2021 Holiday Shipping Deadlines in the U.S.


Every year, couriers publish their "last days to ship" schedules. Easyship recommends the following mailing and shipping deadlines for expected delivery by December 25th:

USPS Holiday Shipping Deadlines

USPS Holiday Service

2021 Shipping Cutoff Date

Retail GroundDecember 15, 2021
First Class MailDecember 18, 2021
Priority MailDecember 20, 2021
Priority Mail ExpressDecember 20, 2021

Does USPS Deliver on Christmas Eve?

Yes, the Postal Service delivers on Christmas Eve – but not Christmas Day.

FedEx Holiday Shipping Deadlines

FedEx Holiday Service

2021 Shipping Cutoff Date

SmartPost ServicesDecember 21, 2021
GroundDecember 16, 2021
Home DeliveryDecember 16, 2021
Express SaverDecember 21, 2021
2-Day ServicesDecember 23, 2021
Overnight ServicesDecember 23, 2021

Does FedEx Deliver on Christmas Eve?

Yes, FedEx delivers on Christmas Eve. The only way FedEx delivers on Christmas Day, though, is via FedEx Custom Critical service. It's available 365 days a year, but costs a pretty penny.

UPS Holiday Shipping Deadlines

UPS Holiday Service

2021 Shipping Cutoff Date

GroundDecember 13, 2021
3 Day SelectDecember 21, 2021
2nd Day Air ServicesDecember 22, 2021
Next Day Air ServicesDecember 23, 2021

UPS Delivers Christmas Eve, Not Christmas Day

UPS delivery service is available in all areas on Christmas Eve. However, Christmas Day is an observed holiday, so there will be no service.

Amazon Holiday Shipping Deadlines

Amazon Holiday Shipping

2021 Shipping Cutoff Date

Standard ShippingDecember 17, 2021
Prime FREE Two-Day ShippingDecember 22, 2021
Prime FREE One-Day Shipping*December 23, 2021
Prime FREE Same-Day Delivery*December 24, 2021
FREE 2-Hour Delivery with Prime Now*December 24, 2021

*Predicted cutoff dates based on the 2019 Amazon Prime schedule.

What is the last date to order from Amazon for Christmas?

Amazon's free holiday shipping promotion, which removes the minimum $25 purchase requirement for non-Prime members, is assumed to be available until December 17th. Orders placed by then are guaranteed to arrive in time for Christmas. Amazon has also expanded free one-day shipping and free same-day delivery for Prime members to more than 10,000 cities last year, so last-minute gift buyers can shop for holiday items until December 24th, at 9:30am.

DHL eCommerce Shipping Deadlines

DHL eCommerce Shipping

2021 Shipping Cutoff Date

SmartMail Expedited MaxDecember 17, 2021
SmartMail ExpeditedDecember 15, 2021
SmartMail GroundDecember 11, 2021

2021 International Holiday Shipping Deadlines from the U.S.


Flat Export International Holiday Shipping Deadlines

Easyship

Destination

2021 Cutoff Date

Flat ExportCanadaDecember 16, 2021
Flat ExportRest of the worldDecember 3, 2021

USPS International Holiday Shipping Deadlines

USPS Holiday Service

Destination

2021 Cutoff Date

Priority Mail Express InternationalAfrica, Central & South AmericaDecember 1, 2021
Priority Mail Express InternationalAsia/Pacific Rim, Australia/New Zealand, Canada, Caribbean, Mexico, Europe, Middle EastDecember 15, 2021
Priority Mail InternationalAfrica, Central & South AmericaDecember 1, 2021
Priority Mail InternationalAsia/Pacific Rim, Australia/New Zealand, Canada, Caribbean, Mexico, Europe, Middle EastDecember 1, 2021
First-Class Package International ServiceAfrica, Central & South AmericaDecember 1, 2021
First-Class Package International ServiceAsia/Pacific Rim, Australia/New Zealand, Canada, Caribbean, Mexico, Europe, Middle EastDecember 8, 2021

FedEx International Holiday Shipping Deadlines

FedEx Holiday Service

Destination

2021 Cutoff Date

FedEx International PriorityPuerto Rico, CanadaDecember 23, 2021
FedEx International PriorityMexicoDecember 23, 2021
FedEx International EconomyPuerto Rico, CanadaDecember 23, 2021
FedEx International EconomyMexicoDecember 21, 2021

UPS International Holiday Shipping Deadlines

UPS Holiday Service

Destination

2021 Cutoff Date

Worldwide ExpressCanadaMonday, December 23, 2020*
Worldwide ExpressMexicoFriday, December 20, 2020*
Worldwide ExpeditedCanadaFriday, December 20, 2020*
Worldwide ExpeditedMexicoThursday, December 19, 2020*
StandardCanadaFriday, December 13, 2020*
StandardMexicoFriday, December 13, 2020*

*Predicted cutoff dates based on 2019 UPS Holiday Schedule. Dates will be updated upon 2020 courier shipping deadline publications.

DHL International Holiday Shipping Deadlines

DHL Express - Destinations

2021 Cutoff Date

Canada, MexicoDecember 18, 2021*
Asia/Pacific Rim, Australia/New Zealand, Canada, Caribbean, Mexico, Europe, Middle EastDecember 16, 2021*
Africa, Central & South AmericaDecember 18, 2021*

*Predicted cutoff dates based on 2019 DHL Holiday Schedule. Dates will be updated upon 2020 courier shipping deadline publications

DHL eCommerce

Destination

2021 Cutoff Date

DHL Parcel International DirectUnited KingdomDecember 14, 2021
DHL Parcel International DirectCanadaDecember 8, 2021
DHL Parcel International DirectHong KongDecember 5, 2021
DHL Parcel International StandardCanadaDecember 1, 2021
DHL Parcel International StandardSingapore, Rest of EUDecember 2, 2021
DHL Parcel International StandardUnited KingdomDecember 10, 2021
DHL Parcel International StandardHong Kong, India, China, ThailandNovember 27, 2021
DHL Packet InternationalUnited KingdomDecember 10, 2021
DHL Packet InternationalWestern Europe, ChinaDecember 3, 2021
DHL Packet InternationalCanadaDecember 1, 2021

Cutoff dates based on 2020 DHL eCommerce Holiday Schedule.

holiday-cutoff-us

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Provide your email and we'll send you a digital copy so that you can easily refer back to it later.

Which Courier is Best for Holiday Shipping: UPS, USPS, or FedEx?

It's important to remember that each merchant is different and these ship-by dates don't have a fulfillment lag built in. There is no one-size-fits-all courier when shipping to a global audience.

Holiday Courier Delivery Score Chart

According to Easyship Holiday shipping data, 2018

Easyship analyzed millions of shipments during peak season, between 50 couriers, including FedEx, UPS, and the U.S. Postal Service. Our results are above.

We found that the Postal Service is often the most popular way to go, although it's still important to give your customers a choice.

Unlike the others, USPS also offers a premium service that can deliver on Christmas Day in major markets. However, we saw that FedEx was almost always a good deal and also had the highest on-time delivery rate during the holidays.

SMBs who choose to work with multiple couriers not only reduce shipping costs, but they also provide their customers the right mix of affordability, service and levels of delivery urgency.

By relying on our Rates at Checkout feature, Easyship clients offer their customers location-based delivery flexibility, while leveraging shipping rules to account for their holiday cut-off and fulfillment logic.

In addition to partnering with popular couriers to ship domestically, Easyship also includes multiple last-mile solutions that provide holistic, pre-negotiated coverage for the rest of the world.

Develop your holiday shipping offers

The holidays offer opportunities to brands who normally don't discount to do so, without diminishing brand value. However, this can often create issues in undercutting profitability.

Below are some options that help you find the balance between services that please your customers, at a price that your business is happy with.

It's important to remember that each merchant is different and these ship-by dates don't have a fulfillment lag built in. There is no one-size-fits-all courier when shipping to a global audience.

How Merchants Ship is Important


Offering free shipping during the holidays makes sense, as many customers are truly in "purchase mode" and are more willing to justify their purchases accordingly.

To determine the best way to offer free shipping, it's best to know your:

  • Average order value
  • Product margins
  • Actual shipping costs

From there, you can make this promotion happen by:

  • Offering free shipping for your most popular products
  • Incorporating the price of shipping into the listing price of your items
  • Making it available to customers who spend over a certain amount. Your shipping threshold should be 10-15% higher than your current average order value.
Promote Ship-By Dates

Promote Your "Ship-By" Dates On Your Site


The busiest mailing and delivery times for couriers are the two weeks before Christmas.

Manage expectations for delivery by sharing ship-by dates for the following customers:

Promoting these dates on your website and sending gentle reminders via email marketing can encourage your customers to make their purchases earlier to ensure delivery before the holidays.

Ready For Rush Fulfillments

Have Same-Day And Rush Fulfillment Options Ready


There will always be those who procrastinate and are in need of rush fulfillment options.

In order to capture those sales effectively, it's best to have the following solutions available:

  • Same day, local delivery
  • Overnight
  • In-store pickup

Don't have a same-day delivery provider? You can utilize Easyship to offer same and next-day delivery for select shipments! sign up for an Easyship account to see if your shipment qualifies.

Don't forget returns

Record-breaking holiday sales bring record-breaking returns in January! Be prepared.

Review Your Returns Policy


Returns are definitely a pain point for eCommerce SMBs. If you're in need of a clearly defined shipping policy, try this free shipping template generator for a fully customized policy with time to spare before the holidays.

Don't forget returns

To help prevent returns, it's best to do the following:

  • Show high quality photos of your product on your website. Showing the product in detail and seeing it at various angles can better manage customer expectations.
  • Include accurate size guides. This is especially important for apparel and shoes. Bonus points if you offer size guides that are localized by country.
  • Be proactive in getting product reviews from customers. This feedback can help make prospective customers make better-informed buying decisions.

Additional Resources:

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