So I just got a really cute-n-jolly red booklet in the mail from USPS titled "Your 2014 Holiday Playbook". Inside it talks about how the holiday season is THEIR season and YOUR season as a business owner. It's all cutely said with pictures of their holiday themed flat rate boxes and festive winter-themed stamps but one thing it gets wrong. Majorly wrong. OMG SO WRONG!
As someone who has worked in e-commerce for years, and "lived to tell" about my own shipping adventures, I'm here to shed some light on the reality of shipping during the holidays - whether you're selling online or brick and mortar - and help you avoid any potential pitfalls.
Get Realistic About Shipping Timing:
"Play #7" (It's a playbook remember!) is the "Crunch Time Calendar" and it lists the below:
December 20th is that last day for First-Class and Priority Mail and December 23rd for Next Day Express which they now properly call "Priority Mail Express"- notice how they got rid of next day."
Well! Let me tell you, this is craycray. Even if you can mail something same day and the recipient is a few states away this is not only a bad idea, it's reckless and I'll tell you why...The 20th is a Saturday, there is no First Class or Priority mail on Sunday's and people need their gifts by the 24th the latest. This gives about 2-3 days for your package to get to your customer on time. Also, don't forget: Hanukkah starts on the 16th!
Customers Expect USPS Timing to be Exact: Customers today are savvy and trust me, they know the time's USPS is saying and they take their word as truth. So, when they say Priority mail is 2-3 days they think that's guaranteed. Customers are also hmm..."unknowable". Whether intentionally or not, you will get a customer who makes a purchase on a Saturday night for an item that takes you a week to ship and because they picked Priority mail, expect to get it by no later that Tuesday because that's the 3rd day. This sort of thing doesn't happen often but when you're swamped with the holidays, once can be enough.
Express mail is not next day. It's not. It's just not. I once did Express from Brooklyn to Queens which was less than 10 miles and it took 2 days.
Prepare for Tense Customers, 'Tis the Season: For whatever reason even if it's 100% not your fault, a customer might get mad at you and regardless, you probably will feel guilty if a package gets lost or doesn't get delivered on time and YOU, even if your policies state otherwise, will experience the grief of a nasty customer, guilt because you're a good person or a chargeback (they may not want it of they don't get it by X date). People are nice during the holidays but a lot are aggressive! Think Walmart on Thanksgiving at 11PM...
The end of December can potentially have horrible weather. Don't depend on the weather gods to be kind to you. I've sent packages from beautiful crisp NY bound for sunny CA and get stuck in ice storm TX till almost the NYE.
Don't expect USPS to be helpful or care. You might luck into someone who is in fact helpful and caring but USPS is so huge and sometimes you just can't get an answer or solution or at least a timely one. Just like I said before, at the end of the day, it's your company and your responsibility.
Be honest with yourself and your customers. I could go on and on but this is what I suggest you do and it's probably the biggest tip I can give other small biz owners for dealing with the holidays.
Do this by putting clear dates on your shopping cart page so customers see YOUR suggestions for shipping methods. Make sure it's clear and not confusing and before they have to pay. Have them email you if they have questions and get back to them ASAP.
If there's a solid chance that your production and processing time will not fit with their shipping choice and the date they need it by, tell them. It's much better to tell them by either saying you cannot send the item in time (ASAP of course, don't tell them the 23rd) or that they should upgrade their shipping method then to last minute either tell them you cannot get it to them in time or make it at all. There's a huge difference between "Oh, that's a bummer. Thanks I understand. I'll take a refund" and " Oh that @#$#!. Thanks for nothing. I want my card refunded!"
Don't forget the rules of First-Class Mail: It comes with no insurance, Priority automatically comes with up to $50.00 worth. USPS with proof will give you a refund if the package gets lost.
Customers LOVEEE dealing with the person behind the brand. They love personal touches and care. A customer would rather have you be straight up with them and remind them that you're a small biz, need time to ship things, make the item just for them etc. There are a lot of nasty people out there but even nasty ones soften up when they are handled honestly, openly and gently.
If you mess up give your customer something like complimentary gift wrap or anything that might mean a lot to them but doesn't put you out.
Be honest with what YOU can handle. Don't overexert yourself for your business. Yes, it's crunch time, yes it's moola making time but don't metaphorically kill yourself for your business. If you can't do it, you can't do it that one time, it's cool. You're still a great lil biz!
It's OK to say you cannot do it. On Dec 19th I will be putting a huge, loud and obnoxious notice on my cart page about no longer accepting Christmas orders and that if they would like to make a purchase they'll have to be preapproved first. People will email you! They really will take that step and if they don't, it's OK. You figure out what your cutoff date is and feel good about it!