It may be difficult, in the midst of one of the hottest summers on record, to think about the chilly upcoming months. But the reality is that much cooler weather is fast approaching, and with it comes the most critical time of year for many retailers – the holiday season that brings major sales increases and, if you are not prepared, supply chain and operational headaches. 

UPS, like many companies, has been focusing on what we call “Peak Season” for months, analyzing lessons learned in 2009 and planning for an even more successful 2010. Hopefully, your company has been doing the same.

Now, with the holidays right around the corner, it’s time to run through a final checklist to make sure your business is ready to handle the holiday rush. (These tips can also jumpstart your holiday season planning if you’ve fallen a little bit behind!)

Packing makes perfect. In many ways, e-commerce has made holiday shopping easier than ever, giving consumers an additional option beyond crowded malls and department stores. Although e-commerce can relieve some consumer anxiety at the holidays, it adds pressure for online retailers to ensure their products get to their recipients in one piece. 

Packaging may seem like an afterthought because it comes after a sale, but damaged goods due to improper packaging not only frustrate the recipient but often lead to the need to remanufacture and reship, in some cases doubling the carbon footprint associated with the package. 

To ensure your products are packaged properly to avoid damage, use at least two inches of bubble cushioning or packing “peanuts” on all sides. Also, use packing tape on all seams instead of masking, cellophane or duct tape to avoid the adhesive wearing off and the package breaking open en route. Consult your carrier to see if they can provide specially designed boxes to withstand shipping stresses. You may also want to consult the UPS Packaging Advisor on for guidelines and recommendations to help with packaging your goods.

Meanwhile, consider using packing and shipping materials with a more sustainable profile. Shrinking the size of the box to ensure less material is used and fewer assets are needed to transport the package is an option to consider. Finally, see if your carrier will review your packaging to ensure it not only will protect the goods but also the environment.

Keep your customers informed with the proper tracking technology. UPS averages about 15 million tracking requests on any normal day. But during the holidays last year, that number climbed to as high as 35 million tracking requests a day. 

There are a couple forces at work that lead to this spike. First, there are more packages in transit during the holiday season, so obviously there will be more tracking requests. But there’s also the anxiety consumers go through – especially those who put off their holiday shopping until the last minute – as they await confirmation that their gifts made it to their destinations on time.

A good carrier will have the tracking technology available to monitor the movement of your customers’ packages every step of the way, and the ability to deliver that critical information to you and your customers in a way that’s easy to understand, such as within an e-mail or a simple webpage. Beyond simply relieving your customers’ stress, it can also dramatically reduce customer “WISMO calls” (Where is my order?) during the holidays to allow you to utilize your employees in areas of your business where their skills and abilities can be more useful.

Embrace m-commerce. As we’ve said in this space before, the 2009 holiday season was a watershed moment for mobile commerce (m-commerce). BusinessWeek’s “Tech Beat” blog reported in December 2009 that a Sanford C. Bernstein survey found nearly 30 percent of BlackBerry users and more than 40 percent of iPhone users reported substantial increases in their online shopping, using their phones for activities like locating stores, getting coupons and making purchases. And smartphone sales continue to increase – including a 50 percent increase in sales in the second quarter of this year, according to research firm Gartner. 

Combining the importance of m-commerce and tracking capabilities, there have been more than 1 million downloads of the UPS Mobile apps for the iPhone, Android and BlackBerry devices since the apps were released last year. 

With more and more on-the-go consumers using mobile devices to support and streamline their shopping, it’s increasingly important to strategically follow your customers into the mobile space. 

Provide clear shipping deadlines. Work with your carriers to determine shipping deadlines to get packages to their final destinations by key holiday dates. Next, factor in your own internal fulfillment process timing requirements to determine purchase deadlines, and then clearly communicate those deadlines to your customers so they can get their gifts to their loved ones on time. If you don’t, you stand to lose considerable business from disappointed customers whose gifts arrive after the holidays have passed. 

Hire seasonal help to handle added volume. As your sales and shipping volumes increase, you may need to increase staff to keep pace. For instance, to handle the millions of additional packages passing through its network during the holidays, UPS hires tens of thousands of seasonal employees to help manage the holiday shipping surge.

Your small or medium business may not need to hire that many seasonal employees, but it might be helpful to bring a few additional employees into your operation to process and fulfill orders, properly package goods, and get shipments set up for pickup. What’s more, you may find seasonal workers to be valuable enough to your team to transition their part-time gig into a full-time career with your company.

Consult a third-party logistics provider (3PL). Even if you handle your own shipping and logistics throughout the rest of the year, the peak holiday season may be a good topic to discuss with a 3PL. For many retailers, the busy holiday buying and shipping season is key to their success for the year – and can also bring a multitude of challenges that can pull the focus away from your core competency and leave you dealing with fulfilling orders, off-the-grid shipments and, worst of all, unhappy customers. An experienced 3PL can be your holiday partner, helping to relieve those pressures and ensure that you and your customers enjoy a happy holiday season.

Ramsey Mansour is the director of retail and consumer goods marketing at UPS.