Peak stress? Here’s what you can do…

Trying to predict exactly what will be thrown at retailers this peak season is a little like trying to nail jelly to the wall. The pandemic, global supply chain problems, and Brexit all loom at the sidelines, but we don’t know exactly what shape they will take, only that they will probably make life for retailers that little bit more difficult. One thing we can be sure of is that consumer demand online will meet and likely exceed that of last year’s peak. Q4 2020 e-commerce sales increased 37% in 2019 and Q4 2021 could be another one for the retail record books. That’s a good thing if you can keep up with it, and to keep up with this level of demand in times of uncertainty, you need lots of flexibility.

Shortages shaping peak

Retailers are up against supply chain chaos and the unpredictability of the HGV driver shortage (vacancies are at their highest since records began in 2001). More widely, we need to have more diverse approaches to getting stock on the shelves (or in the dark store) all year round. No one in this industry needs any more work to do but it’s certainly worth thinking about how to create a diverse and hedged supply chain to ensure you have everything ready to go for customers because increasingly, they will not wait. 

Consumer expectations for hyper-convenient and hyper-fast delivery intensify at the busiest time of the year and are difficult to match with all the uncertainty thrown in. Getting it right counts: when PwC got this year’s measure of global consumer sentiment this year, by far the biggest concern for people when shopping online was fast and reliable delivery. Delivery isn’t just getting something from you to your customer, it’s an acquisition and retention tool.

There’s no such thing as peaking too early

Some retailers (with incredible foresight) started preparing for peak ‘21 as soon as lockdown hit in March 2020. But 50% of business owners and logistics managers who spoke to us in our research on Peak still haven’t finalised plans yet, and no doubt those people have left it late because they simply can’t predict what they will need.

It’s a balancing act between overpreparing and underpreparing. Logistics teams don’t want to overspend on provisions they won’t need, and that’s understandable. But it is smart to have backup delivery partners who can help you scale up at times of high demand. The advice to anyone who hasn’t spent time thinking about peak fulfilment is simple:

  •  List out best and worst-case scenarios and what you can do to mitigate them.
  •  For each one then think of what you have got in place that could resolve any issues. 
  •  If you don’t have something in place, think of who or what you could call on to try and solve those problems.
  • From this, create a backup plan with a provider ahead of time, with clear SLAs for couriers, so that couriers can quickly meet expectations as demand peaks.

Let data lead you in this thinking.  Take the last three peaks to get the median and average percentage increase in volume. If you don’t have that then look at your industry sector trends for sales increases overall and apply those to your own existing volumes, while taking into account any other promotional pushes or sales efforts you may be planning.

Traditional delivery players have already shown they can and will limit their commitments in times of unprecedented demand. In the US, FedEx suspended service for 1,400 customers in summer this year and UPS has announced they’re increasing peak season surcharges for some US customers by as much as 30%.

Prepare for dropouts

We’d be naive to think the UK won’t experience something similar, if not this peak, then in peaks to come. At Gophr we saw it first hand when we had to step in to cover UK-wide delivery for a grocery brand in peak ‘20 to meet demand that couldn’t be covered by their existing provision. A retailer is only as good as their last mile delivery –  a recent McKinsey survey of consumers shows that five of the top nine factors driving customer value in omnichannel retail are related to logistics. Preparing for a big carrier dropout in your list of worst-case scenarios, and having several different providers to step in and give that safety net is vital.

Stores aren’t everything, but leverage of them where they exist can help meet unprecedented demand. Training store staff to properly pick, pack, and ship online orders in a system where seconds count is one way to mitigate what the peak season will bring. 80% of retail and brand professionals surveyed in early 2020 described this as “challenging” to varying degrees. The key is to communicate way ahead of time and make staff aware and alive to any rollout coming down the pipeline along with plenty of motivation to knock it out of the park once it goes live.

Time to pivot

Retailers have been bigging up omnichannel for more than ten years now but have found it hard to truly implement because, even though it sounds great, in practice it can be seen as a daunting and expensive project.  With the right partner, retailers can realise omnichannel goals, for example pivoting to ship-from-store from click-and-collect, as they’re likely to have some of the foundations already in place, like local inventory tracking and in-store pickers. We work with our customers to run a pilot to fine-tune ship-from-store techniques in one locationbefore we build it out across their store networks. Offering this service gives retailers the added advantage to make the sale and also means they can track stock more effectively. 

Our clients are all different, and so we are responding to these unprecedented times in different ways for each one. This speaks to the wider point of how the land as a whole is shifting. The turbulence for retail right now is only showing us that the old model, essentially a menu of fixed delivery options for last mile, is not fit for purpose. Retailers need a flexible strategic partner in their last mile efforts, one that can build a system within their business and help them achieve their goals, rather than simply be an add-on that gets a box from one place to another. Old delivery architectures are not able to be flexible to a range of customer needs. New last mile partners strategise around those needs. 

Come January 2022, once the presents are open, the level of demand will of course relax, but high consumer expectations will remain, as will the uncertainty. Peak uncertainty may be rocking the boat right now, but if retailers prepare for it, handle it and learn from it, it could set them up for better customer acquisition, engagement, and retention all year round.

If you’d like to speak to see how we can help your business prepare for peak, get in touch with us at