Plan for the 2021 Holiday Shopping Season: 10 Ways to Prepare for Shipping Demands

Record-breaking sales is the dream for any big shopping season—whether it’s the winter holidays or back to school—or a highly anticipated product launch. But the reality is, even after you’ve made those sales, you still need to set up shipping and fulfillment processes for every order.

Luckily, this is a great shipping problem to have, and we’re here to help. This guide has everything you need to create a seamless customer-first shipping experience during a rush, including specific ways Shopify Shipping, Local Delivery, and Local Pickup can help you ship more orders to more places, quickly and efficiently.

Prepare your business for Black Friday and Cyber Monday, and holiday shipping:

  1. Map out your shipping and delivery process
  2. Stock up on shipping and packaging supplies
  3. Ensure you can meet important deadlines and plan for delivery delays
  4. Set your busy-season shipping and delivery strategy
  5. Add weights to your products
  6. Communicate your shipping and delivery options and prices
  7. Prepare your return policy
  8. Pay attention to the unboxing experience
  9. Set up order tracking
  10. Anticipate customer questions

1. Map out your shipping and delivery process

Do you know what the steps are in your shipping and delivery process?

If the answer is no, now is the time to find out—and if the answer is yes but you don’t have it written down, it’s time to do that too. Getting the process out of your head and onto paper will help inform any team members or last-minute family “volunteers” helping you fulfill orders during busy periods. It’s also a good idea to revisit your shipping strategy to make sure it’s still relevant for peak season, as conditions may have changed.

To figure out what your process is, pay close attention to the next few orders you ship, or check in with your team if they handle fulfillment. Make a list of each step, and write down how long it takes (approximate times are fine).

For example, it might look like:

  • Review all open orders in one place from the Orders tab in Shopify. (1 minute)
  • Organize orders by delivery area and method, such as local delivery or in-store pickup. (2 minutes)
  • Pick the inventory required for each order based on the delivery method. (3 minutes)
  • Print packing slips in bulk or use the Shopify mobile app to view the products for each order. (2 minutes)
  • Get out appropriately sized packaging and any extras, such as branded materials, coupons, or free testers. (1 minute)
  • Bulk print shipping labels in Shopify admin for the set orders you’re about to fulfill. (1 minute)
  • Set up an “assembly line” for your packing slips, inventory, packaging, extras, and shipping labels. (2 minutes)
  • Pack each order with the packing slip, inventory, and extras. Then, seal and label each package. (5 minutes)
  • Attach a shipping label to each package. (2 minutes)
Image of a woman's hands on a keyboard and in front of a computer screen with charts

While you’re outlining the stages of your process, look for any bottlenecks and note how long each step takes to complete. Is there anything you can do to streamline those steps or make them more efficient?

Shaving a minute off each shipment might not seem like much, but if you’re handling ten shipments and deliveries a day, that’s already ten minutes you (or your team) could spend on something else.

If you’re shipping over three orders per day, it might be time to consider outsourcing your fulfillment. By sending your inventory to Shopify Fulfillment Network, your orders will be picked, packed, and shipped to your customersgiving you time back to focus on scaling your business. Learn more about Shopify Fulfillment Network.

Save time by buying and printing shipping labels in bulk

To save time on every order you fulfill, you can buy and print multiple shipping labels at the same time in Shopify. Since you’ll also access negotiated shipping rates for USPS, DHL, UPS in the United States, Canada Post in Canada, or Sendle in Australia when you ship with Shopify, it’s a real win-win.

To get started, all you need to do is go into your Orders page and select the orders you want to fulfill.

When you select “Create shipping labels,” you’ll see the full list of shipping prices and details for all the orders you’ve selected, and you can buy shipping labels and print them from that page. If any information is missing, you’ll be able to fill it in right there.

Shopify create shipping labels in bulk

Read more about printing in bulk in Shopify

Set up Local Delivery or Local Pickup for local customers

As consumer behavior evolves, so does the way you get your products to them. Options like local delivery and local pickup allow you to connect with your local market, putting more control in your hands and less in the hands of a third-party carrier.

It’s quick and easy to set up Shopify Local Delivery. You can then use the Shopify Local Delivery app to build and share optimized delivery routes to simplify delivery. When it’s time to get out there and deliver, delivery staff and drivers can also download the app on iOS or Android to access directions, send notifications, and delivery status updates.

For local customers who want to order online but pick up the products themselves, you can offer BOPIS options, like curbside or local pickup. This is a convenient way for local customers to skip on shipping costs and pick up their purchases in-store, curbside, or from other locations you choose. When you set up local pickup for your online store, the shipping rate is automatically set to free! Consumers have grown to love the ease and convenience of the experience and is a trend that is likely to stick around after the pandemic.

Set up Shopify Local Delivery or Local Pickup

2. Stock up on shipping and packaging supplies

With a consistent process in place, you should have a good idea of what physical items you need to fulfill each order. Now it’s time to see how your shipping and product packaging supplies are doing and to ensure you have enough of each item to handle your forecasted sales.

The last thing you want is to halt your shipping and delivery process because you realize you’re out of sticky labels halfway through your pending orders.

If you’re using a desktop printer, prepare by replenishing your supply of printing labels. If you’re looking to upgrade to a thermal printer, do that now and not two days before Black Friday.

Merchants in the US can also stock up on free Priority Mail and Priority Mail Express Flat Rate packaging directly from USPS, so if you’re able to take advantage, place those orders well ahead of time. Canada Post offers a variety of shipping and packaging supplies, and Sendle has compostable mailers. Check them out and order your supplies sooner rather than later.

While offering gift options can cost time and money, you’ll be able to successfully sell to holiday shoppers in need of extras like gift wrapping—which, if complementary, can incentivize them to buy without an additional discount. This also requires planning well in advance to ensure you have enough supplies to get you through the season. Shopify merchants can add a gift wrap option to their cart page or use an app like Gift Wrap Plus.

3. Ensure you can meet shipping deadlines and plan for delivery delays

Each holiday season, carriers release shipping deadlines to ensure delivery before specific holidays. This year, carriers are slowly releasing schedules, but with the ongoing COVID-19 public health situation, pandemic-related supply chain disruptions, and increased ecommerce on a global scale, delivery times may be delayed.

In anticipation of another busy online holiday shopping season, keep an eye on your carrier’s shipping deadlines and factor in these impacts on your delivery times. You can see the latest shipping carrier statuses in our Help Center or visit your carrier’s website.

4. Set your busy-season shipping and delivery strategy

Your process is set and you’re all stocked up on supplies. The next step is figuring out the customer-facing details—specifically, what are you going to charge for shipping?

The most common options are free shipping, flat rate shipping, and exact cost shipping. We’ve got some tips to help you figure out which one is right for your store.

1. Free shipping

Shipping costs are frequently the most-cited reason why people abandon their carts, so offering free shipping is a smart way to use a compelling offer to improve conversion rates without solely relying on percentage or dollar value discounts.

That said, it’s not always cheap to provide, even with the discounted rates you get through USPS, UPS, DHL Express, Canada Post, and Sendle with Shopify. If you want to offer free shipping to everyone, you need to understand how it affects your margins and what rates you’re on the hook to cover—including what it costs to ship your heaviest items and shipping to your furthest locations.

However, it’s not all or nothing when it comes to free shipping. You could offer free shipping some of the time to some of your customers. Consider sending a free shipping coupon code to your current customers to encourage repeat orders or offering free shipping above a certain order size to increase your average order value.

When providing free shipping, you’ll need to watch out for shipping cutoff dates. If you’re only springing for free standard shipping, you’ll need to make the expected arrival dates crystal clear so your customers can order in time for the holidays.

Consider sending a free shipping coupon code to your current customers to encourage repeat orders or offering free shipping above a certain order size to increase your average order value.

2. Flat rate shipping

If you want to offset some of your shipping costs and still avoid sticker shock when people check out, a flat rate shipping policy is a great idea. With flat rate shipping, set a price that will cover most of your shipping costs, most of the time, and be ready to cover the cost for particularly expensive shipping options or items.

Flat rate shipping also leads to higher conversion rates at checkout, compared to carrier-calculated rates. Your customers will know the shipping fees in advance, and you’ll still recoup most of your shipping costs.

3. Exact cost shipping

With exact cost shipping, customers can see exactly what it’ll cost to ship their order and pay for it when they check out. They’ll get the same discounted USPS, UPS, DHL Express, Canada Post, and Sendle rates that are available to you as a Shopify merchant when you fulfill your orders with Shopify Shipping.

Cart abandonment rates tend to go up around Black Friday and Cyber Monday, and shipping costs are one reason why. It’s not a deal breaker to offer exact cost shipping, especially if that’s what works best for your business, but it is important to be aware of the potential impact—and have a plan in place to win back shoppers who’ve abandoned their carts.

4. Get orders to your local customers

When customers are close to your business, you can offer them unique and local methods to get your products. This can speed up your delivery time and create a better customer experience while encouraging more local sales with the draw of fast and free (or affordable) delivery and pickup options.

When you set up local delivery, the customer will see the option at checkout. You can use a radius or ZIP/postal codes to decide how far you’re willing to go to deliver orders. You can also set your delivery price, require a minimum order amount, and create a message about how and when you will deliver.

With local pickup, your customers can skip the shipping rates and pick up online orders in-store, curbside, or from other locations of your choice. You might have a customer drive by your storefront, or your “curb,” to pick up a product without ever leaving their vehicle. In either case, these options are a great way to avoid shipping delays and costs without compromising on convenience or flexibility.

5. International shipping

Shipping internationally can open your business up to new markets, but it requires an understanding of customs and related taxes in each country where you’ll sell. You might not be shipping internationally right now because it seems complicated and expensive, but it’s not as tricky as you might think it is.

Plus, customers are more and more likely to shop outside of their borders, so if you’re considering expanding your audience, an international shipping strategy is one great way to do it.

There are already carriers with international shipping options built directly into Shopify Shipping to streamline the process for you: USPS, DHL Express, UPS, Canada Post, and Sendle. You can ship with the same premium carriers that global retailers use with guaranteed express service, negotiated shipping rates, and service to over 220 countries and territories.

Whichever option you use, when you purchase international shipping labels through Shopify Shipping, all customs forms and details are automatically generated for you. If you’re shipping with DHL Express, the information is electronically transmitted to customs, so you won’t need to bother with paperwork at all.

If you’re new to shipping internationally, choose one country to begin with and figure out the process. Display the countries you ship to and available shipping options on your store so customers can find this information.

When you purchase international shipping labels through Shopify Shipping, all customs forms and details are automatically generated for you.

You’ll also need to find out which taxes may be levied on your shipments and display those fees or processes to your customers. Since taxes and duties can change from country to country, and even from year to year, you may want to provide a clear disclaimer that you are not covering, nor are you liable for, duties and taxes that may be assessed on their order when it arrives. Billy! does this well on its dedicated international shipping page.

Covering your bases this way is potentially safer than laying out each process for each country. If you do see a high volume of orders from a specific country, consider providing more information for your customers there.

Once you’ve decided on a pricing strategy, it’s time to get into implementation by making sure each product is shipping-ready, and that starts with adding accurate weights.

5. Add weights to your products

Adding an accurate weight to each of your products helps customers see accurate shipping costs during checkout. It’s good for them, but it’s also good for you: You’ll be able to quickly print correct shipping labels for each order because you won’t need to update or correct the weight mid-fulfillment.

Need to figure out how much each product weighs? Order a shipping scale from the Shopify Hardware store.

6. Communicate your shipping and delivery options and prices

We know unexpected shipping costs can hurt your conversion rates, but “How much will it cost?” isn’t the only pressing question your customers have about shipping during the busy holiday season. Equally important is “Will my order get here in time?”

Don’t be afraid to over-communicate when you’re answering both questions since the answers are critical to anyone considering buying from you.

💡Tip: Communicating shipping speeds at checkout to your customers improves cart conversion, provides clarity and transparency, and increases confidence. Learn more about how to add shipping speeds directly from your Shopify admin.

This email from Province of Canada shows how you can clearly let your customers know the time-and-day cutoff to place their orders so they arrive before a holiday—in this case, Father’s Day. Province of Canada has also taken the opportunity to send a final reminder about their sale, making this email pull double duty.

Province of Canada Father's Day email

If you’re short on time or design resources, or simply prefer the reliability of plain formatting, text-based information works just as well—especially if you have details you know your customers are going to care about. 

Your international customers will appreciate the info just as much as your domestic customers, and you’ll equip them to make better purchase decisions, too.

Beyond email, here are additional ways you can get that information in front of the right people at the right times during the holiday shopping season:

  • Add a banner promoting shipping prices, options, and timelines to your store. Too much to fit in a banner? Link to a blog post or dedicated shipping information page in your store.
  • If you’ve got a shipping deadline coming up, add a popup to make sure shoppers are aware. Popups are only annoying if they’re useless, and making sure orders get there before the holidays is a very useful detail to your customers.
  • Add a homepage image or section that clearly communicates all of your shipping information.
  • Share your shipping information on social media. Even if you don’t have free shipping, cutoff dates are a great thing to promote using branded images on Instagram and Facebook.
  • Send a reminder email to everyone on your list—and everyone who has abandoned their cart—on the last day they can expect a purchase to arrive before the holidays. You might opt for more email reminders, but this one is non-negotiable. You’ll catch a lot of procrastinators who intended to buy but needed one final nudge.
  • Update your FAQ page. If you don’t have one, now’s the time to write one addressing the most common shipping questions. People will naturally go to this page to find the answers they need about shipping if it’s not obvious elsewhere, so you’ll save yourself a ton of customer support by getting it set up early.

💡 Tip: If you’re looking for some good images to level up your marketing messages about shipping, check out Burst’s collection of shipping images.

In addition to your website, product pages, and checkout pages, it’s important to give customers many avenues to get the answers they need. This can include email or social media support, live chat, a shipping policy page, and a help center or FAQ page.

Many customers will check a store’s shipping policy or FAQ page if they have a shipping-related question. Populating this page with the right information helps customers find answers quickly and reduces the need for them to contact you.

Setting up a shipping policies page is straightforward. Create a new page on your store, add a link to the page in your footer, and make sure to include information about:

The details of any individual policy will depend on your business, your products, and your margins, but having a central location to direct your customers to is the first step in proactively managing common questions about shipping.

7. Prepare your return policy

Another aspect of shipping you’ll need to keep in mind during a busy season is returns. Research indicates 67% of ecommerce buyers will check your return policy before buying. When it comes to planning, you’ll want to pay specific attention to return shipping costs.

While the average return rate typically hovers around 20%, around the holidays rates can rise to 30%. An intentional strategy to account for and handle returns—and one that’s clearly communicated to your customers—can help you create a smooth process for everyone involved.

There are three main ways you can handle the cost of return shipping labels:

  1. Your customer pays the cost of return shipping
  2. You pay the cost of return shipping
  3. A combination of the two

The right strategy for you will depend on your margins, as well as your expected return rate, but keep in mind that return rates can be high during the holidays. Whatever you decide, make sure that you communicate your return shipping information as clearly and prominently as you do your shipping rates—it’ll save you time and customer support effort if people do decide to initiate a return.

Your existing shipping policy page can house any information you’d like to provide about returns. Specifically, there are two big questions you’ll want to answer if you offer returns:

  • What does it cost to return an item? Free return shipping is fast becoming a basic expectation. While it’s not financially feasible for every business, sharing your return shipping strategy and cost—whether it’s flat rate, exact cost, or free—on your policy page will help preempt questions and set expectations.
  • Do you offer returns, exchanges, or both? Answering this question upfront will prevent disappointment down the line, even if you don’t plan to offer either option. That way, at least customers know ahead of time.

Here are a few carriers that allow you to offer return shipping labels to your customers:

If you’re a merchant in the US, you can use Shopify to manage returns from one centralized place. You can even create USPS return labels for domestic orders directly in your admin, print, and include them with your shipment. Or you can email a return label to your customer from the Return Item page after the order has been fulfilled. If you have a UPS account added to Shopify, you can also print UPS return labels.

8. Pay attention to the unboxing experience

After all the work required to successfully ship and fulfill your orders, you want to provide an equally great experience when customers finally get to open their package. With a bit of planning, you can create a stand-out unboxing experience that drives real business results.

If you want social shares

To encourage social shares, consider branded packaging and packaging inserts, a small gift, or a call-to-action asking people to share their experience. This can be as simple as a small business card with your social handles, a hashtag, and a (polite!) request that they post on social media if they enjoy your products. 

Posts from happy customers are also some of the most valuable user-generated content available to you, but remember to secure permission before repurposing any content created by your customers. Asking for social shares is a great way to get some user-generated content to fill up your social feeds for the next few months.

If you want repeat business

If you want to drive repeat business, consider adding samples of your other products or include a coupon code on your packing slip that encourages repeat orders, like free shipping on their next purchase or 10% off if they buy again.

Knowing many of your purchases will be gifts can inform your strategy, too. For example, try including two coupons—one for the gift-giver and one for the recipient—as a way to potentially get two customers for the price of one. If you include samples, your products may end up in the hands of someone who would never have tried your product otherwise—that’s a win.

If you want to stand out

As a small business, one advantage you have over big-box competitors is the ability (and willingness) to do things that don’t necessarily scale. If you want to make a strong impression during major sales seasons like Black Friday and Cyber Monday, remind your customers that they’re supporting real people with their purchase by including a personalized touch like a handwritten thank you note.

Card and packing supplies

No matter what unboxing experience you’re trying to create, you’ll need to make sure you have the supplies to make it happen before you’re sitting down to ship your orders out. As a small business gearing up to get a piece of the holiday sales action, it’s important to get your logistics on point well ahead of the busy shopping season.

9. Set up order tracking

Once your customers complete their purchase, they really only have one thing on their mind: When will it show up? You’ll likely get this question no matter how clearly you’ve communicated shipping delays and estimated shipping windows. This is why it’s so important to make shipment tracking available for every order, as early as possible.

The more effectively you communicate available order tracking options, the fewer follow-ups you’ll get from anxious customers. Adding tracking numbers to all fulfilled orders can save you a lot of questions down the line. You can also offer ePacket tracking to put the power in your customers’ hands.

Another option is to add or customize an order status page on your store. After adding a tracking number, your customers can view shipping updates from their order page.

If you’re a merchant in the US or Canada, tracking is included with most carriers available through Shopify Shipping. Once you buy a label for an order, the tracking number is automatically emailed to your customer.

By surfacing tracking information where customers are likely to look—in post-purchase emails and your Order Status page—many customers will be able to answer their tracking questions on their own and get peace of mind, even when experiencing shipping delays.

10. Anticipate customer questions

No matter how much prep work you put in for the seasonal rush, there will be instances when customers reach out. Your team will likely be working at their max capacity, so it’s a good idea to provide guidelines and drafted responses for anticipated customer questions and issues. This will help empower your team and maintain a consistent customer experience.

Whatever the issue, it’s important to have empathy for your customers’ current situation. The mood should influence your reps’ tone and phrasing. Money may have just changed hands and the customer is messaging you with a degree of uncertainty or frustration as to whether they’ll receive what they paid for and in a reasonable timeframe. Acknowledging any frustration they may feel goes a long way toward turning a potentially negative experience into a positive one.

Take order tracking, for example. When customers contact you to troubleshoot, first confirm their transaction went through and the order has shipped out. After that, you can send tracking information and instructions directly. To anticipate potential follow-up questions, consider mentioning:

  • The day you shipped the order as well as the estimated delivery date
  • A direct link to the tracking page for the carrier you used

If you haven’t shipped the order yet, note that to the customer and provide them with expected delivery dates. If you don’t have any available tracking information, set a reminder to follow up with them once you have it.

Customers expect their order on a particular day—often tracking it along the way—and you expect the carrier to deliver. However, shipping delays can’t be completely controlled, so your next best option is to be prepared to support your customers when they happen.

Busy periods often lead to delays, so you’ll want to consider these questions as well. Ship with a mail class that will refund you for late delivery, like Priority Mail Express through USPS. If you’re unable to offer any remedies for late deliveries, it’s important to note that alongside your other shipping policies.

For example, Midori Bikinis’ shipping page provides more information on common shipping issues, including a policy that it can’t guarantee delivery times outside of a specific insured mail class, which is a common policy.

Midori Bikinis' shipping page

Even if the delay isn’t covered, it’s a good idea to do what you can to make up for the tardiness of the shipment, like offering a refund for shipping costs, a discount, or a gift card.

Take the same approach to other anticipated shipping and delivery questions. You can add to your guidelines as you notice trends when more questions come in.

Plan now for shipping and delivery success during the holidays

As a small business gearing up to get a piece of the holiday sales action, it’s important to get your logistics on point well ahead of the busy shopping season. It’ll help create a great experience for your customers, and it’ll definitely help make for a smoother experience for you and anyone involved in helping you get those orders out the door.

Illustration by Cornelia Li