With the change in season comes the realisation for many shoppers that Christmas is fast approaching.

As the light nights and milder days depart to be replaced by the crisp autumnal mornings and dark evenings, attention immediately turns to the festive season; the parties, the extravagance and, most importantly, the shopping.

While the organised among us go for the ‘little and regular’ option of buying gifts, that is to buy a few things each month, for most it’s the mark of the eight week countdown which gets us into gear.

But for businesses in the retail sector or those who provide support to businesses within it, like contact centre and fulfilment specialist Spark Response, the countdown to December 25 started months ago.

With clients including Toys R Us, Soap and Glory, Red Direct and the newest additions to its growing portfolio, Micro Scooters and Wellmount, who all experience seasonal peaks during the autumn and winter months, it’s hardly surprising that Gateshead-based Spark enjoys its busiest months of the year from September through to the final online shopping days before Christmas. In fact, the busy season at Spark can see up to 50 per cent of a client’s overall annual order volumes dispatched in a matter of weeks.

To meet that surge in demand, Spark has begun the recruitment process to bring in 170 new members of staff to ensure all orders placed through its contact centre are successfully despatched in time for Christmas. This intake will more than double Spark’s off-season headcount.

Peter Slee, Managing Director of Spark Response, said: “Our business is highly seasonal, particularly this year with the expansion of our client portfolio, so we are creating 170 temporary jobs to support the existing workforce to ensure customers receive their orders in time for Christmas. And, while it is our busiest time with demand at its highest, we are also committed to providing the first class service our customers and clients expect all year round.

“Customer confidence in retailers’ websites, their fulfilment partners and the carrier network grows every year and as a result our seasonal peak has happened later and later in the past few years. Orders used to peak in November but now we are still despatching large volumes right up until the day before Christmas Eve.”

Last year activity peaked early December with over 370,000 orders shipped in the first two weeks of the month with a retail value of around £10m.

And it was all hands to the pump for managers and directors, who worked a shift in the fulfilment centres to experience the business at its absolute peak.

Peter added: “Our employees pride themselves on pulling together during peak season and everyone – including myself – gets stuck in to help out. We have such a strong team in place here which ensures we maintain our incredibly high standards across all divisions of the business.”

Most of the company’s eCommerce clients use its contact centre to handle inbound order calls, product queries and customer service enquiries. And whilst for most online retailers only around five per cent of orders come in via the telephone, all queries relating to that order will require some kind of human interaction. So, contrary to popular belief, as online sales increase, so does the need for contact centre support.

Peter Slee understands there’s a decline in the number of customers picking up the phone to speak to online retailers but sees his company’s eCommerce pedigree as a benefit: “As more people have taken to ordering online and contacting retailers electronically, there’s been a clear downturn in activity such as order handling. That said, there will always be a requirement for customer support by telephone and that increases as order volumes increase. As our fulfilment operation grows, the level of contact centre support required grows with it. We also have clients from the catalogue and DRTV industries, where there is a bigger need for contact centre support.”

So how does a company like Spark handle its seasonal peaks? Peter goes on to describe a lengthy process of trial and error: “We’ve tried many things over the years and found what works for us. We operate a bureau platform in the contact centre which allows us to utilise cross-trained advisers to maximise availability for clients. We more than double our headcount to handle seasonal peaks but outside of this time, we subscribe to various methods of ensuring we have staff on hand to answer unexpected call peaks. Our staff work annualised hours so they can bank hours in quieter times and work extra when we’re busy and it won’t affect their monthly salary. We also have a homeworker scheme with secure access to our e-mail systems. That frees up our on-site e-mail team to take calls at short notice.”

Spark’s clients in the catalogue and DRTV markets include Pavers Shoes and Best Direct, whose seasonality and order channels differ to its eCommerce client base.

The company also owns and operates its own online retail brands including Ethical Superstore and Natural Collection, via sister company, Spark Etail.