A comprehensive guide to running a successful pre-order sales campaign for your product business
If you’re a small business that makes in the UK, have you thought about selling your products on pre-order?
More and more small businesses are now operating on a pre-order basis because it not only helps with cash flow, but saves on waste because you are not making more than you can sell. And it works particularly well if you are making locally or manufacturing your products in house.
This article covers how to adopt a pre-order sales strategy and common pitfalls to avoid, along with the case studies of three brands that are doing it well.
Pre-order versus made-to-order – what’s the difference?
Firstly, let’s clear up the confusion that many people have regarding the difference between pre-order and made-to-order, as they are not the same thing.
Pre-order is when you tell customers you are going to be making a new product and you let them order it in advance. Once you’ve received all the orders for that product, usually because you give a cut-off date when people can place the order, you then start making them in a batch. Often when you offer a pre-order there is an incentive for the customer to order in advance and wait for delivery, such as a discount or limited edition quantity being made.
Made-to-order on the other hand, is when the customer can order the product at any time and you make a single item just for them. Sometimes with made-to-order you might offer bespoke sizes or customisation to the product, which is the reason that someone will wait. Unlike pre-orders, this can be ongoing and is not usually limited to new or special product launches.
Both pre-order and made-to-order mean that as the brand you do not have to hold a lot of stock. Pre-orders are usually time-sensitive and geared towards generating buzz, while made-to-order is an ongoing strategy to keep your investment in stock to a minimum and offer your customer something more personalised.
Advantages of a pre-order business model
- Better for cashflow – In a traditional retail model, brands produce large quantities of garments in the hope that someone will buy them. But that is a risky strategy for small businesses because it ties all your cash up in stock and forces you to second guess what the customer wants. You are basically betting your money on the fact that the product you’ve made will sell. In a pre-order model you only need to make a single sample of the product to gauge customer interest. If they are willing to part with their cash for it upfront and wait for it to be delivered you know you’re on to a winner. Plus you’ve got the cash in advance to pay for the raw materials and manufacturing.
- Reduces waste – Now that every brand needs to be thinking about what they are doing to avoid over-consumption, pre-order is the ultimate no-waste strategy. The pre-order model inherently encourages consumers to be more mindful of their purchases. By waiting for a product to be made, consumers are likely to think more carefully about the necessity and value of each purchase, thus reducing impulsive buying and overconsumption.
- No guessing on what sizes to order – One of the challenges for any brand is accurately predicting what sizes to buy, especially when you first start out. A pre-order model avoids this issue because you just make what the customer orders. It also means you can potentially offer a wider selection of sizes, which makes your brand more inclusive.
- Acts as a testing ground for new designs – Another benefit of pre-order is that you can test out new designs, colours and prints without having to commit to making it all first. There is far less risk and cost involved in making one sample than there is in making a whole batch, and you might be surprised to find that what sells best is not what you would have predicted.
- Community engagement – As you’ll see from the case stuides below, running a pre-order campaign is an excellent opportunity to build hype and engage with your customer base, creating brand loyalty. By rewarding your pre-order customers with a lower price, or the opportunity to buy something that won’t be available at a later date, it makes them feel part of a special club.
- Avoids discounting of unsold stock – There’s nothing more damaging for your brand than to be constantly discounting your stuff. One of the reasons that brands run sales is to clear excess stock. But if you are selling via pre-order this is not an issue for you.
So now that I’ve convinced you of the advantages of selling via pre-order, let’s look at the best way to do it.
10 Steps to running a successful pre-order campaign
Here’s a step-by-step guide to executing a winning pre-order campaign:
- Market Research: Start by understanding who your target customer is and how you’re going to reach them. The success of a pre-order campaign relies on getting your campaign in front of enough of the right people in a short space of time.
- Realistic Timelines: One of the most critical factors for the success of your pre-order campaign is to set and stick to realistic timelines. This involves accurately gauging how long it will take to manufacture the product, factoring in time for quality checks, and including any potential delays that could arise from sourcing materials or unexpected setbacks. Be upfront with your customers about these timelines, as transparency fosters trust. Remember, exceeding expectations by delivering early will delight customers, but missing deadlines can quickly erode trust and damage your brand reputation. Therefore, always aim for a timeline that you and your manufacturer are confident you can meet or exceed.
- Product Preview: In order to entrust customers to pay for something before it has been made, you need to make sure that you do as much as you can to demonstrate what they’re going to get in advance. Good product photography, or even better, video, that clearly shows the details and fit, will go a long way towards entrusting them to make a pre-order purchase.
- Refund Policy: Whether you offer full refunds, partial refunds, or no refunds on your pre-order sales, make your refund policy easy to find and understand. Include it on the product page, the checkout and in any email communication that you send.
- Delivery Dates: Make it really clear how long it’s going to be before your customer gets their order. If there are any changes to the promised delivery date, always keep your customers in the loop. Transparency is key; customers will be more forgiving if they’re informed well in advance of any delays.
- Promotions: Consider rewarding your pre-order customers with a special price to incentivise early purchases. Or bundle products together with exclusive bonuses that won’t be available once the product hits general sale. These could range from small complementary products to some form of personalisation that is available exclusively for pre-order customers. Just make sure that whatever you offer enhances the original product and aligns with your brand.
- Sense of Urgency: Have a cut-off point when orders can be placed to create a sense of urgency for placing the order. Sometimes people have every intention of placing an order but they procrastinate or forget. So make sure you send a reminder or two, particularly on the day that the pre-order window closes. A countdown timer on your website or in your emails can serve as a good reminder of the ticking clock, and amplifies the sense of urgency. If the product is only available in a limited quantity you can use this as a sense of urgency too, counting down to the amount remaining.
- Social Media: Leverage platforms like Instagram, Facebook and TikTok to build anticipation and keep your audience updated about the pre-order campaign. Reveal exclusive previews, show behind-the-scenes content about the creation of the product, or employ interactive features like polls in your stories to engage your audience. You could also use social media to share the number of units already sold, to build social proof and create FOMO.
- Regular Updates: Take your audience on the journey of how the production of the pre-order is going. This is a great opportunity to visit the factory and show behind-the-scenes. Transparency is particularly appealing to conscious consumers who want to know the origin of their purchases and the conditions under which they were produced, and as a small business this can be one of the things that sets you apart from the big retailers. Use it to your advantage.
- Quality Check: Before shipping out your pre-orders to your patiently waiting customers, don’t forget to quality inspect the order. Delivering a shoddy product after a customer has waited weeks for it is one sure way to p*ss them off! Best practice would be to go to the factory and check everything as it comes off the production line so that corrections can be made before the order leaves the factory.
How long should your pre-order window be?
There are two parts to the pre-order process. The time during which the customer can place the order (the ordering phase), and the time from when they place the order to when they receive it (the fulfilment phase). Let’s look at the ideal length for both.
Ordering phase – Your ordering phase needs to be long enough that you have time to get the message out and ensure the maximum number of people see it, but short enough that your audience does not get fatigued by it. So this will very much depend on the size and loyalty of your audience, the amount of products offered for pre-order at any one time, and the frequency of your pre-order promotions. If you are launching a whole collection via pre-order and plan to do it twice a year, your ordering phase may be something like six to eight weeks. Whereas if you bring out new products fortnightly and have an audience ready and waiting to buy them, your ordering phase may only be a few days.
Fulfilment phase – This is the timeframe from the closure of your ordering phase to when the customer actually receives the product. The ideal time frame can vary but often ranges from four to eight weeks for clothing and homeware items made in the UK. The exact duration will depend on the complexity of your products, capacity of you and/or your manufacturer to make them, and how long your customer is willing to wait. Err on the side of caution, and if you find yourself getting more orders than expected, consider shipping them in two or three drops so that you reward early birds with a shorter wait time than those that wait until the last minute to order.
Common mistakes to avoid when it comes to your pre-order strategy
Having a pre-order business model has numerous benefits, but it also comes with its own set of challenges. There are pitfalls that can hinder your success if you’re not careful. Here are some common mistakes to avoid:
- Over-promising and under-delivering: It’s natural to want to make your pre-order campaign seem as appealing as possible, but setting unrealistic expectations can backfire on you significantly. Make sure that you and your manufacturer can actually produce what you’ve offered, and don’t be over-optimistic about delivery times. Failing to meet customer expectations is one sure way to damage your brand’s reputation.
- Lack of communication: Keeping your customers in the dark is a surefire way to lose their trust. If there are delays or changes in the product, make sure to communicate these as transparently and promptly as possible rather than going silent on your customers.
- Not accounting for raw material delays: Even though the pre-order model minimises having to hold stock of finished goods, this may not be the case for raw materials, especially if you are sourcing them from overseas. Running out of trims, or not getting fabric punctually, will seriously impact your ability to fulfil orders on time. Understanding the lead-times of your raw materials is essential for the success of a pre-order business model.
- Incomplete or confusing information: Your pre-order page should include all the details a customer needs to make an informed decision in order to place an order. This includes clear images and videos, a comprehensive description, details about sizing and fit, delivery timelines, and your refund policy. Failure to give enough information can mean even the most amazing products will never make it to the checkout.
- Inadequate marketing and visibility: Simply setting up a pre-order page isn’t enough. Without effective marketing, even a well-executed pre-order strategy can flop. Use social media, email newsletters, partnerships and influencers to maximise the visibility of your pre-order offer and attract more customers.
- Ignoring customer feedback: Pre-orders offer a valuable opportunity to gauge customer reactions before mass-producing your products. But ignoring early feedback can result in missed opportunities to tweak and improve your offering, leading to a less-than-optimal final product. Moreover, if sales during the pre-order phase are significantly lower than anticipated, this is your audience trying to tell you something. Resist the temptation to make a big batch anyway; instead, take the lack of sales as an opportunity to reevaluate your product and consider redesigning and relaunching it.
Case studies of British-made brands that do the pre-order model well
The Slow Wardrobe
Linda at The Slow Wardrobe offers size inclusive womenswear, predominantly made in linen. As well as a ready to wear collection, The Slow Wardrobe runs regular pre-order campaigns for specific garments. Linda’s pre-order marketing campaigns always start with a YouTube video that she makes to introduce the product that is going on pre-order. She then follows this up with an email to her subscribers focusing on the pre-order offer and outlining the cut off dates for ordering and the delivery date.
One of the benefits to The Slow Wardrobe of selling certain styles via pre-order is that they are able to offer a large amount of options without investing in the stock. The jumpsuit style shown above was offered in 5 colours, 4 sizes and 3 lengths – a total of 60 options.
For returning customers, The Slow Wardrobe offers a loyalty discount on top of the pre-order discount, to reward regular customers. Because of this, Linda says she has many customers that will order something every single time she runs a pre-order.
Three lessons learnt from The Slow Wardrobe’s pre-order offer:
- Limit your raw material choices so that your order is not held up by waiting for them.
- Offer loyal customers an extra-special discount to encourage repeat purchases.
- Use video of the founder talking through the features and benefits of the product to build trust.
Community Clothing works with several factories around the UK to make quality basics at affordable prices. Part of the ethos of the brand is retaining sewing skills in the UK and avoiding over-consumtpion by making pieces that last, so the pre-order model suits their customer profile well.
They chose to run a pre-order campaign for a new collection of underwear in order to secure a minimum quantity of orders needed to restart production lines in Wales. The campaign aligns with their mission to revive local craftsmanship and create skilled jobs in the UK. The company aligns itself with the mission of reviving the lost craftsmanship and providing employment in the area. The “greater good” aspect lends authenticity and a sense of purpose to the campaign, motivating consumers to participate.
Three lessons learnt from Community Clothing’s pre-order offer:
1. Use storytelling to add emotional appeal that not only provides context but also generates interest in the product’s revival.
2. Be transparent about why you’re offering a pre-order. By being upfront about the need to take orders upfront, you invite customers to invest in your brand, which creates a sense of community and shared responsibility.
3. The use of a timer (even if it’s not a real one) acts as a psychological trigger that encourages action rather than procrastination.
Love and Unique
Love and Unique is a womenswear brand that makes clothing from size 8 to 24. Carly the founder has built a loyal community of followers on Instagram and uses the social media platform to test new designs and announce pre-orders.
In one particular pre-order that Love and Unique ran, Carly asked her audience whether they wanted a new dress design in a long or short option using a reel she posted on Instagram. This not only helped her to make the decision to offer the dress in both lengths, but because so many of her followers commented on the post with their preference, it helped the Instagram algorithm know to push the post out even further. The result was that she exceeded her pre-order expectations on the dress, and pleased both the customers that wanted short as well as those that wanted long. Something that would not have been achieved if she’d taken the decision to gaborone or the other and make them all upfront.
Three lessons learnt from Love and Unique’s pre-order offer:
- Use pre-order to make design decisions by getting your audience to engage in the design process.
- Engage your customers in the process early, before you even open up for orders.That way you create their buy-in and build up hype.
- Pre-order videos do not have to be polished and slick, in fact it is much more genuine and authentic if they aren’t
In summary: The power and potential of pre-order for small businesses
Embracing a pre-order model can be a game-changer for small businesses, particularly those manufacturing in the UK on limited budgets. Not only does it offer a safer, more sustainable approach to production and sales, but it also allows you to engage deeply with your customer base. From better cash flow to reducing waste and increasing community engagement, the advantages are many.
However, success is not guaranteed—it takes careful planning, clear communication, and a good understanding of your ideal customer. Companies like The Slow Wardrobe, Community Clothing and Love and Unique demonstrate how pre-order campaigns can revive local craftsmanship and contribute to a greater cause while ensuring business viability.
So if you’re considering launching a pre-order campaign, take heed of the tips, tricks, and common pitfalls mentioned in this article to set your business up for success. By doing so, you can join the ranks of brands that aren’t just selling products but are also building communities and making a positive impact.