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Updated: May 18, 2020
Running a seasonal business requires careful preparation. Not only do you have to ramp up marketing and order extra inventory before your busy season, but you have to put systems in place for the slower season, too.
It can be challenging to stay organized during your business’s most demanding time of year, so we’ve compiled a helpful guide for getting through busy seasons with success.
Keep reading for a comprehensive checklist for your seasonal business’s opening and closing.
Busy season is a great time to boost profits and bring in new customers, but peak season success demands a lot of pre-season work. Follow these ten steps to get prepared.
Reviewing the data from your last busy season can help you spot problems, pinpoint missed opportunities, and develop a better sales strategy. “Without a level of review to understand where you’ve been, you have no idea where you’re going,” said Peter McDonald, a partner at The Turf Doctor, a lawn and pest control service in Maine.
Look at your revenue, inventory, and expenses to gauge how many supplies you should order and how much cash you need.
It’s also helpful to check your company’s growth since the last busy season, either by examining market trends or evaluating the marketing strategies you used, McDonald said. “The best way to forecast our growth is by looking back at marketing numbers to see what worked or didn’t work.”
Giving your customers the information they need to find your business is critical. “Check that your online platforms are ready for a possible influx in traffic,” said Logan Allec, a CPA, personal finance expert, and founder of the finance blog Money Done Right.
Update your website with any new products or offerings, then make sure your contact information, hours, and address are clearly visible on every page. Next, click around your website to get a feel for the user experience. You want to make sure your site is intuitive and easy to navigate, said Allec. “These changes will increase the chance of returning visitors as well as more profits.”
Look over your business’s annual budget to ensure you’re on track with your spending. “You want to have enough cash on hand to take on important tasks or initiatives that are critical to the operation and success of your business during busy time,” said Jason Patel, the founder of Transizion, a college and career prep company.
That means setting aside enough money to cover the cost of regular operations, plus extra inventory, temporary labor, additional marketing, and unforeseen costs or emergencies. Make a list of your expenses for the busy season, then make a budget for each month of the season so you can compare line items and shuffle cash as needed, Patel said.
Strategic marketing is key to drawing past customers and attracting new ones. Take some time a few months before the busy season to review your marketing budget from last year, identify the strategies that yielded a high ROI, and consider which ones didn’t pay off.
Using that information, work on refining your marketing strategy. One option is to diversify your distribution channels, McDonald said. “We’ve found that the more widely we cast the net, the more likely we are to reel in the fish.” If you rely mostly on word-of-mouth marketing, for example, consider expanding into the digital realm with online ads or videos to reach more people.
Social media and email are also great ways to connect with customers. “Sometimes we send out a questionnaire with the year-end newsletter,” said Yvonne Cecile Raley, the founder of Cecile Raley Designs, an online custom jewelry store. Getting creative helps. “We ask people to send us photos of their loved ones wearing their gifts. And we do ‘name the design’ contests and give away something small, like a jewelry cleaner.”
Inventory is critical to the success of your busy season. Without enough stock on hand, you risk turning away customers and losing revenue.
“Take a look at the sales history of previous years, along with current purchase orders and booked clients, to evaluate how much inventory you need to stock,” said Allec.
Make sure you give your business enough time for production, too. “I start prepping inventory in August and September for the holidays,” Raley said, intending to be ready for orders by October. It’s also essential to have the previous season’s bestsellers on hand, she added.
Finally, consider whether or not you have the production time and cash flow to develop any new products or services to better cater to your customers. If you have a floral business, for example, consider whether you can offer something new, like engraved vases or floral arrangement classes. Being innovative can help you satisfy customers and secure even more sales.
Setting sales or revenue goals for the busy season can help you stay out of the red zone and potentially raise profits. “When companies [set goals], they can track their performance through their busy time of their year and project their cash flow to cover the slower periods,” said David Cawley, a partner at Fraim, Cawley & Company, CPAs in Roanoke, Va.
Try setting goals at different levels. “For example, the first sales target may be to generate enough revenue to cover fixed costs (salaries, rent, utilities) for the entire calendar year,” Cawley said. “The second revenue target may be to generate enough revenue to purchase any equipment or reinvest back into the business. The third revenue target may be aimed at earning enough to where the business hits a certain profitability mark.”
After you create realistic goals, list the steps you need to take to achieve them, then break down your targets or tasks by month and week.
Getting employees up-to-date on their training can help pave the way for smoother customer interaction and improved productivity on the job.
“It’s important to go through a complete overview of procedures and protocols before it gets too busy in the field — even for employees who may have been there for years,” McDonald said.
Beyond assigning job duties and setting expectations around working hours and tasks, it’s also helpful to explain customer service policies, review emergency procedures, and discuss potential problems employees may face. “One can never be too trained,” McDonald said.
Plus, training is a perfect time for employees to express concerns or offer suggestions, Allec said. “Their suggestions may give you valuable tips to improve the productivity of your business as well as the morale of your team.”
Entering a busy season without the proper paperwork in place can lead to a fine at best and a closure at worst. If your employees need licenses or certifications to operate equipment or do their jobs, make sure they’re up-to-date with those papers, said McDonald.
You should also renew your business license and apply for any permits you need to remain operational.
When you’re in the middle of a hectic season, you may not have the luxury of chatting with every employee individually. That’s why it’s crucial to define roles and duties ahead of time.
Make sure every employee knows what to do and whom they should report to with questions or concerns. Clarifying everyone’s responsibilities helps reduce downtime and prevent mistakes, Patel said.
It’s also helpful to create key performance indicators (KPIs) for each job, so employees know how to monitor their output and progress. Depending on the job, KPIs could be the number of sales employees secure each month, the number of customer service calls they take, or the number of products they package.
“If you give your team the ability to diagnose their own faults,” Patel said, “they’ll take responsibility and seek to improve.”
Checking out your business’s equipment before the busy season can save you time, stress, and money down the road. “Determine the strength of your equipment and decide if it needs an upgrade, or if parts need to be replaced,” Allec said.
That includes big-ticket items like construction equipment and delivery vehicles, as well as tech equipment like your computer or point-of-sale system. When in doubt, audit any machine or piece of equipment you use to conduct business.
After testing everything, you may find you need to replace certain items or budget for new purchases. If that’s the case, you can either shuffle your cash flow or consider equipment financing to cover the costs.
You may think the most significant success at the end of a busy season is merely making it there without losing your sanity, but there are other ways to close out strong. Follow these eight steps to finish peak season on a high note.
One to two months before the end of the busy season, make a list of your business’s off-season expenses, including employee payroll, rent, production, equipment maintenance, loan repayments, cleaning fees, or disposal fees. It’s also important to review your current cash flow and cash flow projections for the duration of the off-season.
If cash looks tight, you may need to ramp up sales for the final month of high season or find ways to cut costs, so you’re not in the red when the season ends.
A month before the end of your season, check your inventory management software to see whether your current supply levels match up with your projected sales. If you have too much inventory, you may need to offer an end-of-season sale or product bundle promotion to get rid of stock.
Selling your product now doesn’t just help maximize sales; it also prevents dead stock and saves you money in storage costs or disposal fees.
Analyzing your numbers is just as essential at the end of a busy season as it is at the beginning. “Plan for a little time off after the busy season, even if you don’t do actual inventory counts,” Raley said. “You need downtime to crunch numbers, and you want to not just look at the numbers themselves, but also the feedback you got.”
That means comparing your pre-season projections with your overall sales or revenue, reviewing inventory levels, and tracking the number of repeat customers and new customers you saw. It’s also an excellent time to take stock of what sold well and what didn’t, Raley said.
Organizing this information at the end of the busy season gives you a leg up in preparation for next year.
Before you finish the busy season, do another audit of your equipment. “It’s hard to remember what went wrong with your equipment [if you put it off],” said McDonald. After you examine your equipment and test it for performance issues, schedule any repairs, maintenance checks, or replacements right away, he said.
If you’re storing any expensive machines or items, make sure you properly clean and shut them down before you lock them up for months.
Finding ways to bring in revenue during the off-season can set you up for a better peak season.
Business owners should “utilize the slower times to not only strategize on how to make their busy season more efficient and more profitable, but try to increase non-season revenue in any way they can,” Cawley said.
Consider which services or products you can offer during the slow season, even if you have to adapt them to a different customer need. For example, if your surfboard rental shop typically shuts down in October, consider what types of cold-weather activities you could offer customers during the winter months. Maybe you could rent out skis and snowboards, or invest in snow bikes with heavy-tread tires.
Another option is to play around with payments and contracts. “We extend a pre-pay offer to existing customers after the season is over. They save 5%, and their bill is paid the rest of the year,” McDonald said. “That financial input from those customers basically keeps up afloat.”
It’s crucial to continue marketing during the off-season — you just need to take a different approach.
Get creative when thinking of ways to address customer needs during the slower seasons. “We started doing marketing campaigns door to door upon season end, targeting areas where our competition was failing,” McDonald said.
You could also use this time to send out mailers about your services, redo your website, ramp up your social media posting, or create valuable content for customers, like infographics, ebooks, or videos. Marketing strategically now can set you up for success when the next busy season comes around.
The end of a busy season is a great time to check in with your employees. “I recommend having meetings with all employees, whether one-on-one or company-wide, to go over highs and lows,” McDonald said.
Discuss your challenges and successes, then ask your employees if they have suggestions for improvement. “Having an open dialogue with our employees helps extraordinarily. They are our boots on the ground,” McDonald said.
It’s also a perfect opportunity to thank your employees for their hard work. “Whether it’s a gift card to their favorite retailer or a party for the whole team, positive recognition keeps employees focused and motivated to take on the fast-paced, hectic nature of a busy season,” Allec said.
Make sure you set aside enough time at the end of a busy season to thank customers for their business and ask for feedback.
“We take the off-season as an opportunity to get to know our customers,” McDonald said. His employees do follow-up phone calls or in-person visits to ask about the services they provided. Not only does this help customers put a face to the company name, McDonald said, but it also gives them a reason to remember the business during the slow season.
Other smart ideas include sending email surveys asking for feedback, mailing flyers with discount offers or product samples attached, or starting a social media campaign. Staying connected with customers during the slow season can help you secure referrals and repeat business for the next year.
“In the end, we are in customer service, so if our customers aren’t happy, we don’t have a business,” McDonald said.
Whether you’re gearing up for your busy season or preparing to close one out, taking the right steps can help you retain customers, increase profits, and maintain your sanity.
Paige Smith is a Content Marketing Writer and Senior Contributing Writer at Funding Circle. She has a bachelor's degree in English Literature from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and specializes in writing about the intersection of business, finance, and tech. Paige has written for a number of B2B industry leaders, including fintech companies, small business lenders, and business credit resource sites.