The festive season survival guide

As the uncertainties caused by the likes of Brexit, PSD2 and strong customer authentication swirl around retailers, life still presents its certainties: death, taxes and the mad rush produced annually by the approaching Christmas shopping season.

No doubt the festive season is a positive for retailers, a spike in orders and sales that can make the year for some businesses. But it also comes with its own stresses: An increase in volume and velocity of orders, knowing that a disproportionate number of shoppers will be visiting a merchant’s store and digital sites for the first time and a slew of online orders that look suspicious given their high order values and mismatched billing and shipping addresses.

But there are ways to take much of the stress out of the busy season. The key: preparation. And no, it’s not too late. Think of Christmas as a stress test for your operations and procedures.

Start by making sure you understand and have accounted for everything it takes to get an order from your store or warehouse to the end customer — and what it takes to support that customer after the purchase, should questions arise.

Retail veteran Robert Gilbreath advises retail operations professionals to write down every step of their current order and fulfilment process. It might sound like overkill, but Gilbreath, a former executive at ShipStation, who is now at ScaleFactor, says the exercise focuses one’s thinking on what is required for each step — and how those requirements might be automated.

Gilbreath, who presented his thoughts in a webinar called “Ready, Set, Ship,” also said he is a big fan of rehearsal. Yes, practicing for the holiday crush. To gear up for the holiday, Gilbreath would put a stopwatch to a fulfilment team packing and shipping 100 orders.

Preparation is an important step: figuring out how to staff up or step up to handle the holiday overflow. The trick with any kind of order spike, whether it hits a retailer at Christmas, Valentine’s Day or the summer season, is to ramp up operations, but only temporarily.

Third-party help and automation are two practical ways to tackle a dramatic increase in sales. Many retailers hire temporary staff for the holiday season. Depending on the work and the amount of expertise required, temp workers can give permanent employees the space they need to continue to do their jobs.

Repetitive jobs or tasks that are candidates for automation can be turned over, certainly in part, to smart machines that are able to work at a speed and scale that humans simply cannot.

Order management and shipping, for instance, can benefit from artificial intelligence (AI) that understands and learns from a retailer’s supply chain and fulfilment practices. Gilbreath’s simple example: if a particular high-demand product is generally stored in one warehouse, then orders including that item should be routed to that warehouse and not another across town.

Order review provides a similar use case. Signifyd, for instance, has worked with fraud teams to provide elastic coverage during holiday and other high-volume stretches. A retailer’s fraud experts could continue at their normal pace of reviewing orders to determine whether they were legitimate or fraudulent.

In the meantime, the overflow orders could be routed to a solution that uses big data and AI to sift good orders from bad ones in milliseconds. A relatively new model of fraud management, called guaranteed fraud protection, also comes with a financial guarantee on any fraudulent orders that were approved to ship, which relieves the financial pressure on manual reviewers to get it right.

Having the overflow system in place means that the existing fraud team doesn’t have to make rushed decisions, or play it safe by declining orders that seem odd, but might be legitimate, given the shifting buying patterns that the holiday brings.

And it means human reviewers don’t have to be slowed down by an increase in orders that come with red flags.

Think of how shopping patterns change during the holidays: gift givers living at one address and shipping to another; loyal customers buying a type of product they’ve never shown an interest in; customers buying more frequently than usual or buying many of the same item (for office gifts, perhaps), or placing orders with considerably higher order values than they typically would.

Automating processes during the holiday rush also means that retail workers don’t have to be pulled away from interacting with customers in order to step into less familiar roles to help get extra orders out the door.

Which is a good thing, as the holiday season is arguably when customers most need the personal touch, given the stress which sometimes accompanies gift-buying.

In fact, turning to machines to pick up some of the extra holiday work gives retailers an opportunity to try out new ways of getting the job done. New methods that are successful might come in handy at other times of the year.

Think of the period immediately after the festive season. Many retailers are socked with returns from those who received gifts that didn’t quite make the mark.

A number of vendors offer automated systems that use machine learning to decide whether to restock a return, move it to a discount rack, liquidate it through a broker or take some other action.

Along with returns comes the increase in disputes, for instance from customers who say the product they ordered online never arrived or that it arrived, but not as promised. Such squabbles, if not handled well, can lead to chargebacks and loss of revenue for a merchant.

Automating the investigation and documentation needed to adjudicate consumer disputes with banks and credit card companies can save precious people-hours and increase the likelihood that a retailer can meet the timelines for appealing such claims.

Turning to AI to automate chargeback management also means a retailer would have access to the kind of data it needs to have a better insight into whether the customer is being truthful or whether the consumer is seeking to take advantage of the retailer.

That kind of insight can go a long way toward avoiding insulting a good customer by questioning his or her honesty.

So, we all know the holidays are coming. It happens every year around this time, right? But there is no need for the holiday season to arrive with any more stress than a day at work during the rest of the year.

All it takes is some preparation, a little outside help and maybe a few deep breaths.

Stefan Nandzik, Signifyd vice president of corporate communications

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