The 2021 holiday season is now history. It’s no secret that the last quarter of every year is always a challenging time for retailers – one defined by demand surges, forecasting uncertainties, and heavy competition. Add to the mix the amplified difficulties of the ongoing pandemic, including global supply chain disruptions, massive e-commerce growth, and widespread labor shortages, and you have a recipe for potential disaster.

But for small business owners and managers, the peak season rush doesn’t just offer stress and headaches. It also provides some valuable operational and strategic lessons.  And so, with 2021 now in the rearview mirror, it’s time to take a closer look at what we have learned:

Planning and Forecasting Take Center Stage

While the manufacturing shortages and transportation disruptions caused by COVID-19 won’t last forever, the fact is that supply chains were strained long before the pandemic. Growth in consumer demand, geopolitical instability, and natural disasters are constant threats, and thorough research and planning must be a big part of the solution for retailers. What does good planning involve? It starts with a deep understanding of consumer trends, along with extensive market research. Armed with a clear view of what your customers will need in the future, a focus on forecasting will allow you to place orders early, avoiding last minute delays. Planning efforts should include a detailed strategy for shipping, warehousing and tracking your goods.

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Manufacturing and Supplier Diversity – and Good Relationships – Are Key

As COVID-19 surged at different times across countries and continents, it demonstrated the critical importance of having a diverse supply network. Retailers with multiple manufacturing sources in different regions of the world had more options during the peak season rush when disruptions occurred. Even now, new lockdowns in China threaten to cause serious problems for companies that are over-reliant on Chinese manufacturing. Many retailers are diversifying their supply network and building resiliency by partnering in other countries, such as Vietnam.

In addition to having multiple manufacturing points, your business needs to maintain strong relationships and good communications with all your supply partners. By staying in close contact and establishing trust, you’ll be better positioned to know when and if future disruptions may occur.

Strong Customer Communication Sets the Right Expectations

To get your goods to customers on time during the holiday season, or anytime for that matter, you need a proven global shipping partner, accurate inventory management, and a reliable team in place to prepare your shipments.  But you also need to set expectations correctly, and let your customers know when they need to place an order to receive it by a certain date.  Your online storefront should clearly explain your shipping policies, estimated arrival times, and express delivery options.  In addition, you should employ a system to keep customers updated on the progress of their shipments.

Great Staffing Starts with Commitment

Talk to any retailer about the 2021 holiday season and the issue of staffing will be front and center. The ongoing labor shortage and the battle for talent represent a clear challenge, and to meet this challenge your organization must commit to creating an engaging, rewarding workplace. You will need to invest in sound recruitment strategies, and tailor your compensation to be competitive.  For retailers that hire seasonal employees for holiday peak season, it will be important again next year to hire early.

What lessons did your company learn from the 2021 holiday season? Let us know on Twitter @DHLUS.

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