What lessons did we learn from peak 2023?

Marie Barrance
8 January, 24

How were your Black Friday and Christmas peak? Hoping to do better next time? As e-commerce leaders lay out their budgets and plans for the coming year, the challenge of getting peak right next time is worth addressing now, writes Marie Barrance of Asendia UK.

Seasoned retailers understand that getting stuck into peak planning while last year’s challenges – just experienced – are still vivid, is a very worthwhile pursuit. After all, Black Friday and pre-Christmas trading are the year’s most profitable occasions for many brands.

The dust is settling on peak 2023, and it seems there were the usual winners and losers. Few could disagree that the economic situation made it a very tough Christmas. Back in October last year, GlobalData predicted[1] that total UK spending would rise by 3.4 per cent to around £110 billion in the final three months of the year. But with budgets tight, online spending for Black Friday (24 November) was expected to be down by 2% year on year, according to the IMRG trade body, due to high levels of inflation and the cost-of-living crisis. IMRG predicted a 3% fall in the value of online clothing orders, and an 11% dive in sales of gifts, as households reined in festive treats for friends and family, due to higher costs in all walks of life.

Some industry leaders re-evaluated their sales strategies, opting for stability over steep discounts, despite an obvious appetite for bargains. Others committed to Black Friday as a pivotal factor in shaping the dynamics of their peak season. A noteworthy shift was observed in both 2022 and 2023 – the ‘Black Friday creep’. This saw deals hitting the market more than a month in advance, with some retailers launching promotions as early as October. Not surprisingly, some UK brands looked to affluent overseas customers to make up for sluggish conversion rates on home turf.

After disappointing sales last summer due to unseasonal weather, some fashion brands endeavoured to clear apparel stock with Black Friday discounts in November 2023. The downside of doing so was the risk of being swamped with clothing and footwear returns, distracting warehouse teams from fulfilling the rest of peak trading.

There were pitfalls galore. Here are my tips for planning e-commerce peak 2024, based on recent learnings:

  1. Upgrade your website

Did you continuously monitor and analyse website performance, traffic, sales, and customer behaviour during the peak trading season just gone? There’s nothing worse than turning away online customers, because of technical problems and poor UX. It’s crucial to ensure that your website can handle increased traffic during Black Friday and peak trading. In the months ahead, conduct stress tests to identify potential bottlenecks and ensure a smooth online shopping experience for customers. Mobile responsiveness is often overlooked, so ensure your website is fully mobile-responsive, as mobile traffic continues to grow. Also, Q1 might be the best time to invest in robust backup and disaster recovery plans, to be ready for unforeseen server failures or data loss well ahead of peak 2024.

  • Upgrade your forecasting

If you aren’t already in a position to optimise inventory management for peak, spend the first few months of this year getting your IT ducks in a row, so that you can. This will enable you to analyse historical sales data to forecast demand accurately, ensuring you have the right amount of stock needed when the next peak comes. You can use data analytics tools to identify which products are popular where – and this is hugely valuable when planning to fulfil orders across multiple countries. Once you have the insights, you can allocate and prioritise your inventory so that new audiences at home and overseas aren’t disappointed.

  • Meeting international demand

With many brands prioritising the UK market, order volumes to overseas customers can sometimes be jeopardised, and there may be a need to alter delivery expectations.

I’d recommend offering a variety of shipping options to cater to the needs of overseas customers. Provide both standard and expedited shipping with clear delivery timelines. Consider partnering with third-party logistics providers who can handle international shipping and returns efficiently and cost-effectively.

Communicate shipping costs transparently to customers and consider offering free or cheaper shipping for orders over a certain value to encourage larger purchases. Of course, if you are marketing to shoppers in countries where receipt of parcels will take at least a week, your campaigns for seasonal peaks need to be executed in plenty of time.

  • Build flexibility into your operations

Online sellers need to be nimbler than ever at Christmas. Supply chain routes can be subject to overnight change when the weather is bad, or political issues crop up. It’s important to be prepared to switch what you’re offering, and how you deliver. If one product line is held up in port, be ready with replacement options, and dial your social marketing up and down to reflect your stock availability.

It’s important that your chosen postal service or parcel carrier can flex to changing needs too. Bearing in mind peak air freight hold space gets booked up earlier and earlier each year, does your international fulfilment partner have access to extra capacity at short notice? The best partners will be able to adapt their services in line with your margins, getting the cost per kilo for shipping just right for you. Shipping partners will be doing their utmost to help, by offering advice and flexibility where possible, including having dedicated account managers on hand for trouble-shooting.

  • Sharpen delivery performance with data insights

Do you have data on fulfilment partners’ performance and delivery hit rate? Now is the time to use this data to plan how you will make real-time adjustments to your customer care, delivery, and delivery pricing strategies next Q4. Where problems cropped up, put in place the supply chain support, manpower or tech power to ensure this doesn’t happen again. If your last mile fulfilment partner in one region let you down and failed to meet KPIs this peak, make sure you have a new partner all set up and ready to go for peak 2024. 

  • Note where cross-border shipping delays caused problems

It will pay to spend time analysing last year’s international shipping performance at peak, so that you can avoid delays at borders next year, based on your most recent experience of shipping lead times and paperwork pinch points.   

At Asendia we know many sellers rely on intermediaries in the EU to streamline VAT processes, and Christmas has been problematic in recent years due to the volume of red tape required to get through customs. Factor in extra time for admin bottlenecks next November and December. It will help to work with a logistics provider who has HMRC Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) accreditation[2], as this simplifies and speeds up the customs clearance challenge for retailers.

Incorporating these strategies will fortify your website and streamline your delivery operations in readiness for heightened traffic and demand during Black Friday and the Christmas season 2024. Moreover, these preparations will also prove invaluable during the upcoming minor peaks – Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, and Easter. By taking these proactive steps, you can secure a competitive advantage in delivering a seamless and dependable online shopping experience for your customers.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2023/oct/22/christmas-shoppers-to-buy-fewer-and-cheaper-items-this-year-as-cost-of-living-crisis-persists

[2] https://retailvoices.co.uk/2023/10/asendia-uks-mou-accreditation-elevating-export-efficiency-with-swift-customs-clearance/

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