If I have one message to send to small businesses about preparing for the holidays in 2021, it’s don’t wait.

I’m not just talking to you retailers – though you’re the ones I’m sending this message to the loudest. Small businesses in every industry need to think through how they’ll make the most of #Holidays2021.

Every year, the holidays are a critical time for small companies, but this year, the holidays are going to be much more challenging. Why? This year, everything is going to take longer, be harder to find, and there’ll be more competition for inventory, employees, customers. Even something as simple as sending out greeting cards to your clients is going to be more challenging this year.

The COVID question

Thanks to COVID-19, it’s much harder to predict what the holiday season will be like this year. Will shoppers and customers want to be out and about? If so, your brick-and-mortar store will need more inventory; your salon will need more shampo; or your dry cleaners will finally get some business.

Or will COVID-19 make everyone want to huddle indoors? In which case, your e-commerce, shipping, and delivery capabilities will be critical, and your marketing more important than ever.

What can you expect?

Here are some trends a small business can expect for the 2021 holiday season:

Online shopping will be big. COVID-19 has changed shopping habits.

Inventory will be in short supply. Record backups at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach – which handle 40% of US imports – mean lots of goods will not be making it to your suppliers.

If you’re sending anything to clients or customers – cards, gifts, even invoices – find out where to actually reach them where they’ll actually be at that time. There’s a good chance they won’t be at their usual address.

Long lead times. No matter what you order, it’s going to take longer to arrive. Not only are shipping services overwhelmed, even domestic suppliers are having trouble getting enough staff and supplies to produce sufficient goods.

Staff shortages. It’s already difficult to find employees. Expect it to only get harder.

Customers and clients will be hard to reach. Will your customers still be working from home? Are they back in their office? Have they rented a vacation home? You can’t depend on reaching clients or customers at their old addresses.

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Customer service will be lacking. Lower your expectations about what kind of service you’ll be able to get from suppliers or distributors. They’re all short-staffed.

How you can prepare now

So how can you succeed in the holidays this year? As a small business owner, must be more proactive than ever.

Order inventory now. Inventory is going to be hard to come by. So take your best guess now on inventory levels and be flexible in what you order. It may be difficult or impossible to restock your shelves once they’re bare.

Enable online ordering. If you don’t already have a way for customers to order from you online, it’s time to address that. The fastest way to set up an e-commerce solution is to use an online e-commerce service, like Shopify or Wix e-commerce. Some social media sites such as Facebook or Instagram also have tools to enable you to sell directly as well.

Update your customer contacts. If you’re sending anything to clients or customers – cards, gifts, even invoices – find out where to actually reach them where they'll actually be at that time. There’s a good chance they won’t be at their usual address.

Buy from American suppliers. Delays from overseas suppliers are going to be the norm, not the exception. American suppliers may be able to get more of what you need when you need it.

Accept credit cards for immediate payment. If you normally invoice your clients or customers to pay in 30 days, offer them the ability to pay with credit cards if they pay immediately. That will give you more money in the bank now.

Order your holiday cards and holiday gifts now. You’ll have few or no choices if you wait.

Hire extra staff now. Offer predictable work hours as well as higher pay to get a hiring advantage.

► How to find and keep your best employees: And surefire ways to lose them

Update your website. When was the last time you looked at your website? Give it a refresh before going into the holiday season.

Market, market, market. Customers are going to be overwhelmed this holiday season: They’ll have fewer choices, will be strapped at the last minute and will be searching for solutions. Stay visible to your customers and prospects. Be sure they see you – in social media, through search engines or in their inbox.

Rhonda Abrams is a small-business expert and a “Top 30 Global Guru” for startups. Her book "Successful Business Plan: Secrets & Strategies" was named one of the 100 best business strategy books of all time. Connect with Rhonda at facebook.com/RhondaAbramsSmallBusiness; Instagram and Twitter @RhondaAbrams. Register for Rhonda’s free small business newsletter at www.RhondaAbrams.com/subscribe.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Holiday shopping: Why small businesses need to start getting ready now

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