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11 tips to prepare for peak season packaging demand

David Mason: Last Updated 16th February 2024
Posted In: Efficiency & Productivity | Guides and Advice xx 31633

Peak season planning

How packaging can help your business cope with increased sales volumes

Are you one of 40% of retail businesses that see more than half of their sales occurring during the final three months of the year? Or an eCommerce business that sees packing times increase significantly during the festive period?

You are not alone.

A packing operative preparing packaging for peak season
How your business - and packaging - copes with peak demand, can define your success

This guide covers why and how you should prepare your packaging and processes for peak season (well before Peak Packaging Monday). It covers:

  • Staff training and engagement.
  • The actual packaging you use and how it affects your success.
  • Organisational, operational and logistical considerations.
  • Customer experience.
  • And much more.


What is peak season?

What does peak season mean?

Peak season, also known as the “golden quarter”, is the term given to the busiest time of year for eCommerce and retail businesses. It lasts from October to January. eCommerce peak season encompasses Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and the festive trading period. As many as 4 in 10 businesses see over half their annual trade condensed into these months.

Business-people analysing sales figures on a laptop
Some businesses see over half of their annual sales in the 3 month "peak" season

In essence, peak season is when businesses experience their strongest trading.

For some retailers, the peak can start as early as the “back to school” period, with Halloween and Bonfire Night also key dates on the calendar.

This makes peak season planning crucial. Businesses must ensure that their packaging supplies, processes, and supporting logistics can support the increased demand.

How does peak season affect businesses?

Whilst peak season affects most businesses, those trading online tend to focus considerably more on preparing for this sales period.

With online sales now accounting for almost a third (approximately 27%) of all sales – and the growth in eCommerce continuing even after the shift caused by the pandemic, peak demand can place considerable strain on businesses’ operations.

Ensuring adequate packaging stocks is a crucial consideration. So are packing and fulfilment times; 42% of businesses indicate that packing times increase over the peak season (30% see an increase of over one minute per pack).

Add in complications regarding logistics, staff recruitment (and training), plus customer expectations, and peak season can be incredibly challenging for even the most well-prepared businesses.

Peak season planning

How to prepare your packaging for peak season

Simply knowing the peak season meaning is not enough. With the three months up to and including Christmas potentially defining the success of your business, it is critical that your packaging can cope with and support the increase in orders and demand.

But how do you ensure you have a cohesive strategy so that your packaging (and business) is prepared for peak season?

These 11 tips to prepare for peak season packaging demand can be crucial to your success:

  • Review last year’s performance.
  • Train staff (in advance).
  • Organise warehouse and storage space.
  • Refine packing processes.
  • Analyse the packaging you use.
  • Consider switching to bespoke packaging.
  • Assess your packaging supplier.
  • Consider a just-in-time supply.
  • Optimise your logistics.
  • Have a strategy for returns.
  • Consider customer experience.

Review last year

Learn lessons from previous performance and challenges faced

Getting started can seem daunting, especially considering a list of 11 points when preparing for peak season. However, the best place to start is to analyse your performance from previous years.

Make sure to look at both what went well and what proved challenging. Learning from your missteps is crucial to ensuring a successful peak this year.

Besides considering your business’ internal processes, remember to look at sales data, what competitors are doing, and other external factors.

Consider the events of the past few years (including COVID-19 lockdowns, altered consumer behaviour, cardboard shortages and so on) that have skewed recent data. Predicting as yet unseen factors this year (with the cost of living crisis potentially impacting shopping habits) is also difficult.

Even so, it is essential to look at what worked historically and draw up a plan for the peak season.

Office workers analysing charts
Analysis of what did and din't work in previous years can help when planning for peak

Train staff in advance

Productivity, consistency and engagement

Whilst most permanent staff should be up to speed with your packing processes, peak season is likely to bring an influx of temporary staff. Any temps or new starters need to be fully trained before peak season to ensure that the extra capacity required is available when order volumes start to rise.

Besides training, other visual aids such as posters, manuals or guides can help staff follow procedures correctly and ensure the smooth running of your fulfilment.

As staff can often be a business’s highest costs, ensuring everyone is pulling in the same direction – and that they know exactly what to do during busy periods – can allow your packing operation to run at maximum efficiency.

It is vital that you meet staff demands during peak season.

Organise space

Considering your warehouse's peak period

Besides training staff, there are other steps you can take to ensure efficiency.

One of these – although not directly involving packaging – is to optimise your warehouse space.

As peak season sees higher order volumes, there is an increase in both packaging supplies and stock of products, too. Inefficient “picking” or retrieval of both can result in slower fulfilment times – and annoyed customers. It also means inefficiencies affecting your performance during busy periods.

A row of picking bins in a warehouse
Organising your warehouse and inventory can streamline your fulfilment

Providing good organisation in your warehouse, staff knowing where to find everything they need, ensuring the basics of order picking are being adhered to, and even using temporary picking bins can all help your efficiency during peak.

Packing process review

Ensuring you keep packing times to a minimum

Of course, picking products and the packaging to ship them is only the first part of the fulfilment process. Reviewing your entire packing process makes sense, as this often highlights areas you can improve.

For example, ensuring packing stations are well laid out. Staff having enough packaging and materials for a full day (or shift) of orders can also significantly affect throughput.

As mentioned, having staff well-trained in a standardised set of procedures can also aid productivity.

Ensuring that you are optimising your packing processes and staff efficiency can be a significant factor in coping with peak demand.

A person taping a large cardboard box
Having well trained staff in a well organised environment can help with peaks in demand

Analyse packaging used

Assess the types (and amount) of peak season packaging

Besides processes, the type and amount of packaging used are also critical.

For example, poorly trained staff may use oversized boxes, which then require filling with excessive void fill. Not only do these additional materials cost your business money, but they are also more expensive to ship. It can even annoy customers, who have to dispose of this excess packaging.

Equally, orders that don’t use enough packaging can become damaged during transit, leading to returns.

Another note of caution here is the size of your packaging inventory – if you have a vast array of boxes to send items out in, it can mean staff spend too long deciding which ones to use. Rationalising your packaging – even if it is just for peak season – can alleviate this and help with costs and space savings.

Bespoke packaging

Consider switching to custom packaging

One way to resolve any issues you face with your packaging is to switch to bespoke boxes and items.

Not only does bespoke packaging typically provide better protection during transit, but it can also be easier and quicker to assemble.

Custom-sized boxes usually reduce the amount of space required to transport them, reducing costs, material usage and environmental impact (including less CO2 emissions from delivery vehicles).

Bespoke packaging can also carry your branding and provide a much-improved experience for your customers.

An eCommerce box with black and white printing
Using custom eCommerce packaging can help with peak demand and improve customer experience

Consider your packaging supplier

Understanding the specific challenges your business faces

Several previously detailed tactics to streamline and enhance your packaging may be impossible due to one key factor – your packaging supplier!

As such, it is worth assessing the service you receive from your packaging provider. If they are not proactive, do not understand the intricacies of your business, are unresponsive or do not even supply all of the packaging you require, then switching to a new packaging supplier could provide you with noticeable benefits.

And whilst moving to a new supplier during the peak is likely not a good idea, going into this period with a packaging partner – rather than just a supplier – can be a significant advantage.

Consider JIT supply

Outsource the management of your packaging inventory

A service that an established packaging supplier can usually provide is that of JIT (just in time) supply.

Also referred to as a vendor-managed inventory (VMI), it involves your supplier providing your packaging just as you need it – from either a stock holding or efficient manufacturing schedules.

This service can vastly reduce the space you require for storing your packaging. JIT supply also allows you to hold more stock of products, accommodate more packing staff, or more effectively organise your warehouse space.

A final yet critical benefit is your packaging supplier’s ability to predict your peak and troughs in demand – a true packaging partner should have a good idea of your packaging usage during peak season and plan accordingly.

A forlift being driven in a warehouse full of packaging
It is possible to outsource the management of your packaging inventory

Minimise product returns

Reduce (and assist) customer returns during eCommerce peak season

Once your packaging has left your fulfilment centre, its job is only just beginning.

Your packaging should be strong and durable enough to protect your orders through the supply chain, preventing damage and the inevitable returns that follow. However, as many as 20% of retailers and 3PLs report that transit damage increases during eCommerce peak season.

Even if your packaging performs as expected, there will still be returns from customers that change their minds. Your packaging can help here, too, by allowing customers to return products quickly, easily and safely.

If your eCommerce packaging can withstand the initial and return journeys, it can help you vastly decrease product damage and unsellable stock.

Optimise logistics

Minimise costs and environmental impact of transport

As well as minimising (and aiding) returns, your packaging can also help to optimise logistics.

Correctly sized packaging allows delivery vehicles to carry the maximum amount of products, with even small gains here helping you cope with peak demand. This benefit is, of course, in addition to the cost savings and environmental benefits.

Optimising box sizes can also allow for more efficient delivery. For example, slim packaging that fits through letterboxes (and that does not require customers to be home and sign for the parcels) minimises attempted deliveries, helps transport efficiency, and improves customer satisfaction).

Whilst you must plan these strategies well before peak season, they can make a significant difference.

A courier delivering cardboard packaging
Optimising your logistics can reduce both costs and environmental impact

Be prepared

Plan for peak well in advance

It may seem obvious., but being prepared for every eventuality is critical to a successful peak season.

Historical data can help, but as the last few years have shown (including COVID-19 lockdowns, changing consumer behaviour, and even cardboard shortages), some things can be challenging to predict.

Come up with a strategy that covers a range of scenarios, both positive and negative, and have contingency plans in place.

Also, ensure you prepare for the peak to come earlier or later than expected.

Always be organised and prepared for any eventuality.

Bonus – customer experience

Focus on your customers during peak season

With all of the planning and considerations that go into a successful peak period (including, but not limited to, your packaging), it can be easy to forget that peak season is an important time for your customers, too.

Consumers buy Christmas gifts for their family and friends, prepare for big events and gatherings, look for bargains, or just treat themselves.

A customer unboxing an eCommerce order
Your customers unboxing experience should not be neglected, even during packaging peak demand

Your packaging should not only help get these consumers’ orders to them safely and in a timely fashion but also become part of the experience.

Placing a focus on the unboxing experience – and how this reflects your brand – delighting your customers and providing the wow factor can help win repeat business and foster brand loyalty (not to mention word-of-mouth recommendations).

Your packaging should be an essential sales tool for your business, not just during the peak.


Preparing for peak season

Whilst there are many factors to consider, taking a systematic approach to preparing for peak season packaging demand can significantly impact your business success.

Ensuring you do the basics well, considering all eventualities and working alongside a packaging supplier that understands your business’s particular challenges can prove invaluable.

Worried that your packaging and processes may not be ready? Then please get in touch with GWP. One of our experts will gladly provide specialist packaging process advice, ensuring successful peak-season packaging for your business.

Further reading

About the Author

David Mason, GWP Packaging

David Mason

Sales Director | GWP Packaging

David is Sales Director for GWP Packaging, having originally joined the company (then Great Western Packaging) back in 1990. [Read full bio]

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