September is here again and with it comes time for booksellers to start thinking about the holiday shopping season. And just like last year, we’ll be contending with delays due to the ongoing global pandemic.
2020 was, without any doubt, an unprecedented year. Everyone felt the disruption from the global pandemic—print-on-demand worse than some industries due to shortages in materials (like paper and ink) that are necessary. As we’ve adapted to working from home and social distancing, shipping services have continued to be delayed.
Some factors (like the Suez Canal blockage in March) are impossible to plan or prepare for. Other, like the USPS’s delays in getting mail to recipients on time, we know about now and can plan around.
Publishing And Print-On-Demand
When it comes to shopping and buying products online, there are two distinct ‘sourcing’ methods that can cause some confusion. The historical method is to source a product from a warehouse. This one is pretty easy to understand.
Let’s say I want to buy a lamp. I go online, find the lamp I want, and order it. An automated system sends my request to the appropriate warehouse. Someone at the warehouse finds the lamp and packs it up for shipping.
Bam! I’ve got a sweet new lamp!
Because the product is just waiting and ready for someone to buy it, the process of fulfilling an order from a warehouse can be fast (thanks Amazon).
The other method is on-demand products. For some products, this is necessary because the product is customized before ordering. I might create a book of family photos and customize the introduction for each family member.
Print-on-demand is great for custom products, but it’s not so great for production times. That lamp can ship and arrive in a matter of days. My custom photo book has to first be checked to ensure it can print, then sent to a printer to be printed and bound. Once all of that is done it is added to a shipment and picked up by the carrier. Only then does it start the journey to my mom’s doorstep.
For all the awesome things Amazon brings us, Prime Shipping has created one huge problem for every business creating custom and on-demand products: the expectation of speed.
It’s an unrealistic expectation. While you can get an item that’s been sitting in a warehouse packaged and shipped in very little time, custom products take longer. Books need to be printed, cut, bound, cured, and packaged securely before a carrier like FedEx even thinks about delivery.
Your mantra for the coming weeks should be PLAN AHEAD.
There’s a lot you can do as an independent author or small publisher to prepare for the holiday season. Readers might not know about the time involved in print-on-demand. And data from Salesforce shows that sites averaged a 43% increase in new visitors.
Ecommerce (online shopping) isn’t going away this year. Or probably ever. So get ahead of your customer’s needs by stocking up for rush orders and clearly communicating shipping times.
Preparedness is everything
this every year.
Preparation + Print-On-Demand
For print-on-demand retailers (which is you if you’re using POD for your books), you’ll need to consider not just the delays in shipping but also potential material delays that may impact the printers.
Most orders Lulu prints take only a day or two from the time of order, but with the holidays and the existing delays, we expect that print time to grow.
Part of this is due to more orders than usual. Our printers must also contend with social distancing and safety precautions in the print facility. Everyone is working as hard and fast as they can, but we also have to stay safe.
These delays are exacerbated by shortages in supplies. Ink and paper stock shortages coupled with a lack of freight drivers are straining the entire book-making industry. As of July, Publishers Weekly indicated that this year would be no different than the last.
If you sell directly to your readers (maybe using our Shopify App or Open API), you should consider ordering some books to hold on hand. In fact, that’s a good plan in general. If you always have a handful of your books stored, you can act like a warehouse retailer and ship books quickly if it’s absolutely necessary. And with the potential for delays in shipping and printing, it’s likely to be necessary.
For authors who rely on retailers (like the Lulu Bookstore) to sell your books, you’ll need to focus instead on sharing information with your readers. Start marketing for your holiday sales earlier than in years past and share information about delays from a variety of sources.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot you can do to allow for shipping delays.
In the fourth quarter carriers always experience an increase in delays and lost or damaged orders. It’s just natural when they’re trying to get more packages delivered in a set timeframe. With ecommerce sales likely to continue to grow, we’re in for some difficult delivery times over the coming months.
When you are messaging your readers (and potential readers) about inevitable delays in shipping, be sure to encourage them to order early and plan for the longest predicted shipping time.
One idea for buyers who purchase too close to the holidays to guarantee having your book in time is a custom gift voucher. Lulu’s Bookstore offers these as we approach our shipping deadlines and if you sell using Shopify or our API, you can create your own using Canva or another (free) design tool.
Here’s a template I made you’re welcome to use:
One unavoidable change that will impact everyone is the increase in shipper pricing. This is being seen now as a surcharge applied to vendors (like Lulu) who use shipping providers like FedEx, UPS, and others. It’s important to understand any potential changes in the cost to ship as provided by the shipper and to allow for this when thinking about your holiday shoppers.
On Lulu, we have to adjust our shipping cost to cover shipper surcharges, which you’ll see listed as an increase in the various shipping methods we offer. Please note that this is not an increase controlled by Lulu; rather we are applying the increase our shippers have imposed to help them meet the increase in demand this year.
If you sell direct using Lulu xPress for Shopify or our API, you’ll need to allow for any changes in shipping costs by updating the amount you collect from buyers for shipping. Otherwise, any increase in shipping will eat into your profits from each sale.
Potential Delays For Lulu
We expect our printers to need a couple of extra days for some orders and we anticipate unpredictable shipping delays.
That doesn’t mean you can’t have a successful holiday season though! You just need to plan ahead and actively share information with your readers. To help you plan your holiday sales, we’ve created this infographic to help you plan around potential delays in printing or shipping.