How SMBs Can Prepare For The 2021 Online Holiday Rush

October 22, 2020
A large pile of stacked packages ready for delivery. The boxes are diverse in size, colour, shape and branding.

In 2021, online is the new normal, and nowhere is that more true than shopping. According to the US Census, eCommerce has gone from 15% of retail spending in 2019 to 21% of spending in 2020. Or in the words of Shopify’s CEO, we’ve seen 10 years of e-commerce growth in a matter of weeks

And we haven’t even hit the holiday rush! For many businesses, the holiday season is the busiest time of year as their customers stock up on gifts and goods for the year ahead. We expect November and December to be the biggest months ever for online sales.

But unlike in previous years, this growth doesn’t have to do with more people getting comfortable shopping online. It’s happening because people are more comfortable with home delivery. 

As people stay at home for their health and safety, home delivery has become the only way they can shop, and they’re more comfortable knowing they’re likely to be there to receive their packages. That’s why we’re seeing historic e-commerce growth, not just in typical categories like fashion, but in perishable or valuable goods like groceries, health products, electronics and meal kits. 

Is your business ready to capture the growth? 

We’ve put together a 3-part guide to help:

  • Your Holiday Buying Experience
  • Your Holiday Shipping Experience
  • Your Holiday Season e-commerce Preparedness Checklist

Your Holiday Buying Experience

Online shopping during the holidays isn’t like other times of the year.

Customers feel they have more choice, but less time. The urgency to buy is up, but so is distraction and friction. As a small business, you have to not only make the case that your product is good, but that they will be just as comfortable buying from you as from Amazon or Target. 

Here are some of the ways you can ensure your holiday shopping experience stacks up:

Know Your Dates and Promotions

Don’t make the mistake of beginning to think about the holidays in mid-November. Most customers start their holiday shopping during the Black Friday/Cyber Monday weekend (November 27th to 30th). In the month before that, you should also be thinking about how you’re building your email list for the holidays and whether to run a pre-BFCM sale to avoid the November sales dip as customers anticipate the big weekend.

A typical promotional schedule might look like this:

  • November 1-15th: Contest or campaign to build your email list
  • November 27-30: Your biggest discounts of the year (20-50% off is standard)
  • December 10-21st (depending on your shipping) “Last Chance for Christmas” campaign
  • December 26th-31st (especially in UK/Canada/Australia): Boxing Day promotions (10-30% off)

Cutoffs and Timelines

Make sure your customers know exactly how long it takes for their order to come, and when they need to order by to get it for Christmas Eve. With Christmas, it’s best to err on the safe side - if you or your shipping partner typically take 3-5 days to deliver, set the cutoff 6 days ahead.

Even before Christmas, it’s important all holiday season to put your shipping expectations front-and-center on product and discovery pages. Even in 2020, people will be traveling to their families during the holidays and want assurance their order will arrive before their flight.

Clear Return Policies

Online shoppers return 15 to 30% of orders, compared to just 8-13% for brick-and-mortar. Customers now expect to be able to return products, and when buying gifts, this is even more important. Whether you choose to have a generous return policy as a marketing strategy, or a tight one to stay profitable, make sure your customers know.

Packaging Transparency

The holiday shopper isn’t just thinking about getting the product - they’re thinking about giving it. If you have packaging that is gift-ready, that can help you distinguish yourself from the customer’s sea of brown boxes. 

If your product is perishable or high-value, this is even more important. You’ll need to make it clear how you preserve the product in transit, how long it can say cold (or warm) at a doorstep, how you make sure they’re there to receive it, and how you’re keeping your delivery COVID-safe.

Make It A Gift 

This is the obvious one - if you are thinking about a gift card, gift wrap, or gift package feature, now’s the time to do it. Customers will appreciate the ability to do it, especially if you can make it an all-in-one solution with shipping to a different receiving address available.

Your Holiday Shipping Experience

Some small retailers make the mistake of thinking their e-commerce experience starts and finishes online. For the holiday season, in particular, that’s only the beginning. 

This is the most stressful and exciting time of the year for your customers, and the shipping experience is your chance to both alleviate the stress and tap into the excitement to wow your customer.

Whether you’re shipping through a 3rd party, managing it yourself, or a mix of both, here’s what you need to consider:

Clear Post-Purchase Email

Some people think that the info in a post-purchase email is for directly after purchasing. That’s not actually true. Part of the benefit of having a clear, well-branded post-purchase email with clear details about shipping is to be a reference point for your customer. They will appreciate the ability to go back later and check when their package is coming, and it will save your logistics and support teams time.

Multiple Shipping Options

The more flexible your shipping, the more sales you unlock. One way to do this is to provide options for both 3rd-party shipping and local delivery. 

3rd-party shipping helps you cover larger areas and meet demand, but they also have costs and risks - up to 8% of 3rd-party shipments are delayed. By managing your own local delivery area, you offer your Christmas guarantee for longer and delight your customers. Need help managing your local delivery? Our route optimization software can help you manage your local deliveries with ease.

Tracking Ability

Nothing frustrates a customer more than a package lost to somewhere in shipping-land. If you are using 3rd-party shipping, make sure you are sharing tracking numbers as soon as possible, and if you are using local delivery, make sure your customers know the status of their order. If you’re using Shopify, consider their ‘fulfill’ feature to keep customers posted - and consider our Shopify integration for automated route planning.

Customer Support Readiness

You can expect your volume of customer support will go up along with your volume of orders. Make sure you have a larger team (or extra time set aside) to address customer questions in a timely manner. Follow shipping best practices like photo + signature capture, plus the other tips in this guide around transparency and automation, to lighten your load.

Customer Notifications

Nothing is worse than missing a delivery, especially in the holiday season when stress is high. Keep your customers posted on your deliveries with SMS notifications and live GPS tracking so they know exactly when their order will arrive. This is particularly important for high-value or perishable goods.

Customer notifications are also a brand touchpoint - make sure they’re customized to your voice so customers feel the love!

Unboxing Experience

The unboxing experience isn’t just about a box with your brand colours. It’s about ensuring your product comes exactly as promised. This pre-holiday season is a good time to stress test your packaging: can it withstand being dropped or bumping around? Are the products secure in the box? Is your shipping’s temperature control up to standard? These can make or break your customer’s holiday.

Staying Profitable

It’s all about the customer, but you also need to make money. The costs of the holiday season can add up quickly to eat into your margin, especially through delivery. 

If you’re shipping through third parties, make sure you understand what percentage of those costs you need to pass along to your customers. 

If you’re doing your own local delivery, make sure you’ve properly calculated your last-mile costs, and implement delivery management software to automate route planning and control costs in real-time.

Your Holiday Season e-commerce Preparedness Checklist

One month before BFCM, you should:

  • Set your promotional calendar
  • Set your order cutoffs
  • Set your return policy
  • Lock in your packaging, packing process, and unboxing experience
  • Have gift options prepared
  • Update your post-purchase email
  • Know your shipping plan and partners (local and 3rd-party)
  • Set up customer order tracking and notifications
  • Ramp up customer service capacity
  • Calculated your delivery costs


The 2020 holiday season is an unprecedented time for small businesses. For those that are able to successfully serve their customers online, they’ll capture new levels of growth and establish long-term customer relationships. But those who fall short on their promises will be playing catchup well into 2021. 

If you’re ready for your shipping strategy to be part of your competitive advantage, try Routific free to give your local delivery team accurate ETAs, efficient routes, and most importantly, peace of mind for you and your customer.

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Portrait of Pam Sykes
Pam Sykes
Pam Sykes has a PhD in History and a background in Journalism. She is the Lead Content Strategist at Routific with a focus on delivery management, delivery experience, route planning, and the last-mile industry in general. She has a passion to help delivery businesses scale with her craft of storytelling.

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