Most businesses that ship freight have some kind of seasonal peak occur throughout the year. But when you’re talking about Peak Season with a capital P, logistics professionals know you mean those four to five hectic weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas when retail volumes skyrocket.
But while Peak Season is only several weeks long, managing it for your company’s freight ought to be a full-time, year-round job. It’s too complex to assume your ordinary operations plus a little extra effort will be enough to keep up, and the consequences associated with failure are far too severe to risk poor performance.
To have the most successful Peak Season possible, businesses need to start preparing for their next season immediately after the current one ends. And to do that well, you need to staff a role or team whose core (if not exclusive) function is Peak Season prep.
Once you’ve built your own Peak Season team, you can take these four steps to ensure next year’s Peak is a successful one:
1. Plan early. Since UPS acquired Coyote Logistics in 2015, I’ve headed up our collaborative support for UPS’s Peak Season freight from my role as SVP of Operations. If there’s one certainty about Peak I’ve learned in my time here, it’s that it’s always full of surprises.
You can anticipate volume surges, but you can’t always predict their severity. You never know when a primary carrier is going to fall through. And you absolutely don’t want to jeopardize fulfillment during the busiest time of the year.
But you can set yourself up for success by lining up capacity as soon as possible. Every January, review your performance from the Peak Season that has just concluded. You should be able to already identify gaps and pain points that can be shored up by reallocating capacity in the coming year.
Then, as volume forecasts develop and solidify throughout the year, you can add greater detail to your “soft” plan to condition your capacity to be able to handle the need you’ll actually experience. If you’ve done this diligently, you should have a fairly clear idea what your actual needs will be by the fall.
Planning this early will let you be more selective as to which carriers in your network will move freight during this vital time, and it could also help you find rate relief over procuring on the fly during Peak Season. It can also help you create an accurate overall operating plan that will result in the best service possible for your customers.
2. Create a backup. This is even more important: If any carriers are not meeting expectations during peak season, you can’t be left hunting for an alternative in an extremely tight spot market. You need to have backup carriers on call to step in and fill any last-minute gaps.
As you work on your comprehensive Peak Season plan throughout the year, you should get a good idea of which of your lanes are most crucial to your overall seasonal performance and which are most at risk for a failure. For each of these — especially if they are the same lanes — make sure you have one or more reliable backup carriers in place who can pick up any last-minute loads.
Compile all your primary and backup carriers into a Peak Season routing guide and upload it into your transportation management system (TMS). From there, you can tender freight with agility throughout the busiest weeks of the season.
In a perfect world you’ll have backup capacity sourced for all of your lanes throughout the season. Finding that much capacity is quite labor-intensive — all the more reason you should staff a Peak Season team to handle it.
3. Trust your technology. The good news for shippers is that even as Peak Season gets more complex every year, technology is evolving that can lighten the lift. Today’s TMS platforms not only automate many of the tasks associated with procuring freight, they instantly generate reports that help you track performance against your Peak Season KPIs in real time, helping you make adjustments on the fly when necessary. And GPS-enabled apps make coordinating pick-ups and drop-offs for drop-trailer and power-only solutions as efficient as can be.
The right technology can also help provide crucial visibility between you and your customers throughout the season. When it’s more important than ever that every shipment makes it to its destination on time, your customers will appreciate as much real-time tracking as you can provide.
Technology is another area that can be addressed early in the year before the run-up to Peak Season gets too intense. As part of your annual postmortem, be sure to note any areas where efficiency and transparency were hampered by manual, error-prone tasks and start vetting and pricing tech solutions to ensure they don’t happen again.
4. Build the right team and lean on their strengths. Technology alone won’t get you through Peak Season intact, however. The expertise your people possess is crucial for contingency planning, staffing and training, and keeping clear lines of communication open with your customers.
As you build your Peak Season team, prioritize candidates who have experience with surge environments and demonstrably strong communication skills. When a primary carrier falls through, you need a Peak specialist who knows just who to call as a backup — and you need them to know how to message the situation to your customer so that everyone is on the same page and confident in a swift resolution.
Peak Season is intense year in and year out, but it’s only truly overwhelming if you approach it unprepared. By committing the necessary resources to managing Peak Season freight year-round, you’ll be able to procure capacity, plan operations and execute effectively in a way that protects your budget and keeps your customers coming back.