For any retail company, online or in-store, the best time to start planning for the holiday shopping season is immediately after the last one ends.

Ideally, you want to do a post-mortem on your performance during Q4 while it's still fresh in your team's mind. By July, you should be mapping out the high-level plan for the coming holidays, which gives your team time to develop a new product, packaging, gift guides--or anything else that requires a long lead time.

Many people will read those last two paragraphs and think, "Uh-oh."

Issues pop up. Time slips away. And the holidays seem to come sooner than you thought. If that sounds like your current situation, it's true, you are behind.

But it's not too late to take action. For my team, there were definitely early years when we weren't as prepared for the holidays as we should have been. I certainly wouldn't recommend starting late, but if you begin now, you can still make the most of the season.

Here's how to do it:

1. Create a plan (and a backup plan) as soon as possible.

You're going to have to work with what you have on hand. After all, a physical product can easily take months to create and ship to your warehouse. That means you need to come to terms with what's feasible at this point--especially if you have a highly giftable product.

You may have to get a little creative.

Start by planning promotions and rolling out PR, which has a much shorter lead time than building new products. Also, start thinking about gift guides and other ways to get your products better visibility. There are tons of publications that do "The Top 10 Gifts Of 2018," which are excellent ways to get eyeballs on your products.

It's also important that you have a contingency plan. Changes in your business, your goals, or the market can happen at any time, and it's a good idea to have a backup plan in place so you aren't scrambling in early December to adjust.

Crafting a plan, and a backup or two, is half the battle.

2. Build up your customer service team.

It's not enough just to get your product out to customers before the holidays.

No, the real challenge comes after Christmas, when millions of people around the country begin returning and exchanging gifts. You must have the right amount of staff on hand to manage the high volume of returns and exchanges that will begin rolling in the day after Christmas and all throughout January.

I know what happens if you don't because two years ago, we made this exact mistake. We had good holiday sales and a strong January. But we couldn't hire fast enough to handle our customer service needs. So, we ended up with a massive backlog of customer tickets, somewhere in the thousands, and not enough people to handle them.

We got through it by holding "ticket parties" where we'd bring in the whole team, order pizza, and work through customer tickets together. We paid overtime and tried to hire as quickly as possible until we finished the backlog, but it simply wasn't something we could make disappear with a snap of our fingers.

Even if you haven't settled on a plan for the holiday shopping season, now's the time to put one in place for the return season.

3. Understand what your team needs before and after the holidays.

Every company is different, so you need a solid understanding of what constitutes success for your team--and what they'll need to pull it off.

At ThirdLove, the holidays are a little different, because we're an e-commerce company. People tend to buy our products for themselves, rather than giving them as gifts. That means the week before Christmas is actually a little slower for us. Once our expedited shipping cutoff date arrives, people can't get our products on time.

So, while a lot of companies have to hire more temporary employees in the weeks leading up to Christmas, we tend to actually give people more time off. This year, no one's working on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. After that, the "return season" rolls around so we need all hands on deck.

No two companies are exactly alike, and the holiday season is a little different for everyone.

The biggest key is that you start planning now, and as soon as this holiday season is over, be sure to get a jump on the next one. I promise you'll notice the difference in your company's performance. Plus, it's a good way to end the year--and start the next off right.