One upshot of the coronavirus pandemic has been a substantial switch by consumers to eCommerce –and with that has come renewed pressures on shipping. In fact, shipping – both in the supply chain and B2C – is becoming the crucial link in the chain that is keeping many retailers and their customers afloat.
At such a time as this, talk of “competitive advantage” is somewhat crass: we are, after all, all in this together. However, if we flip the script slightly and look at how to fine-tune eCommerce delivery to offer the best service to consumers in the current crisis, then many of the same rules apply.
And let’s not forget, this is temporary and we will come out the other side, changed, but still looking at how to make your business as efficient, profitable and above all likeable as possible. The brands that offer exceptional customer service now, will be the ones that will hit the ground running in a couple of months’ time when things start to return to normal (well, the new normal).
So, what can you do to make your eCommerce shipping the best it possibly can be right now and in the future?
Know your customer – how old and where they are
All businesses need to know who their customers are and that includes how you approach shipping.
Understanding if they want things ASAP and are willing to pay for that, or if they can wait and want it free has always been crucial. While we are prioritising what people want right now, this is more crucial than ever. Look at how they are buying things, how those things might fit into what is crucial or not and plan your shipping accordingly.
People want their alcohol gel and face masks pronto tonto – and will pay a premium; people buying hair clippers can probably wait a while longer.
It will also become likely to need to know the age of your customers, with the possibility that for some goods – food primarily, but it will impact other eCommerce supplies – old people will need to be prioritised. This means adding a field, perhaps, at the checkout stage to ask for date of birth. Working this into a system that can prioritise these people won’t be easy, nor will verifying their age.
The location of your customers is also becoming important in the current climate. In Italy, for example, where whole cities were isolated at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak, eCommerce providers had to swiftly add-in to their shipping options whether their delivery drivers, if outside those cities and regions, could actually enter. If not then the transaction wasn’t possible.
While complete lockdown has happened yet in the UK, future outbreaks of COVID-19 could see rolling lockdowns. Worth bearing in mind for the future.
Mastering the cost of shipping
With eCommerce set to account for 40% of retail right now, up from 20% pre-corona – a figure unlikely to dwindle even when the pandemic has passed – competition is fierce, but not necessarily in the ways that it has been in the past.
Currently, brands that offer help and advice and are seen to be working for people, rather than just looking for their loot, are getting more traffic and more conversions.
And one of the ways to win is with ‘free’ shipping. With people watching their wallets, but also still keen to shop, offering free delivery is something that could attract them to your site rather than someone else’s. It also shows goodwill and that ‘we are all in this together’ mentality.
It can also mitigate against delivery times taking longer than usual, especially for non-priority goods. You can have it, it may take two weeks, but shipping is free: this is the new normal.
Of course, there is no such thing as ‘free’ – someone, somewhere pays for it, be it built into the cost of the goods or as a subscription fee a la Amazon Prime or ASOS membership, or added on to the cost of the transaction – however, offering to appear to not charge is a real winner for consumers at any time.
However, free isn’t the only game in town. Charging for priority has always been a way to garner conversions and in the current climate that carries perhaps more weight than ever before. It is also more difficult than ever before to make that happen.
Having a strong portfolio of carriers in place and a way to centrally manage them, of course, helps to be able to more dynamically offer a range of delivery options – and to charge for those that you can prioritise.
Free returns, convenient returns
A key differentiator for any eCommerce business’s delivery offering is returns. Not everyone likes what they have bought and getting it back to whence it came has long been a challenge for etailers.
In the current climate, returns are perhaps even more of a hurdle: with consumers in lockdown, getting out to return something has many vexed as to whether it is a priority or not.
That said, making returns easy is one of the things that has long marked out those retailers that get the sale. Free returns are ideal – again you need to factor this into the cost of the goods, so it is free at the point of use – as they will encourage shoppers to buy, safe in the knowledge that if they don’t like what they are buying they can send it back easily and for free.
In the current circumstances, returns need to be more carefully delivered than ever before, however. There has been a a surge in the use of lockers for returns – again, making them free helps – as shoppers want to get the goods back but with minimal contact with other people.
There is also the use of carriers that have pickup points at local food stores and petrol stations, which offer a particularly viable way to return right now as they among the only shops that are open. Expect to see more returns points at off licences and pet stores any day now.
Instigate your peak plan now
In many ways, the sudden shift to eCommerce caused by the cessation of bricks and mortar trading for most retailers has brought about levels of eCommerce commensurate with – and in some case streets ahead of – their peak season operations. So put your peak plan into practice right now.
So, what do you do when planning for peak? Firstly, you look at the data: what do people buy, when do they buy them, where do they live, what sort of delivery choices do they go for and so on?
Don’t look at peak data, things are different now, but assess what has changed in the past month. Then use that and the lessons you have learned from peak trading in years gone by to create and improve your strategy today.
The key tactic most employ at peak – and which must be employed now in the during the long drawn out corona peak – is a multi-carrier strategy. As stated earlier, to offer the widest range of options to customers and to meet the changing demands that you as a retailer are currently facing, having a portfolio of carriers to hand makes life much easier.
Multi-carrier operations make it easier to manage price, delivery times and returns across the board. No, it won’t be as easy as Black Friday, but the lessons you have learned there are key today to creating a new kind of delivery plan.
The biggest thing you can do right now to give yourself the edge in eCommerce delivery is to manage customer expectations. While many might want their goods ‘next day’, that might simply not be possible in the current environment – but tell them that.
If they want it next day, but you can’t, then offer them free delivery ‘this week’. Equally, make sure that they can track their package so they know when it is going to arrive and that it is on its way.
While the chances of missed deliveries must be at an all-time low with people being told to stay home, it will happen unless customers can track and amend their deliveries. I for one have already missed two deliveries while taking a daily walk with the dog. Being able to know when my goods are coming – even roughly and even having to wait longer than usual for them – is a godsend in these strange days we are currently experiencing.
There is still a need for competitive advantage in eCommerce right now – everyone is chasing the same customers online as ever they were – but the rules of engagement have changed. Now, retailers need to use delivery as a way to entice users to their site – but it also has to look like you are helping cope with the lockdown and strange new way we have to live.
While free delivery and next day are still on the table, the real competitive advantage lies in offering delivery that is trackable and, even if it is not as fast as usual, is accurately timed.
To make this happen, retailers need to essentially plan for peak. They need to understand the data of what is going on – how people are shopping and what their delivery demands are – and work with multiple carriers to make it happen.
Those that get it right now and offer the kind of service that shoppers want will not only do well while the world is turned upside down, but will also have a competitive advantage when things go back to normal.