It has oft been said, and you may well have read it here on eDelivery too, that reputations that took years to build can be damaged in an instant. For all a retailer’s hard work on building a brand, offering a multitude of touch-points for shopping and delivery, and investing in new services, on the front line of retailer-shopper interaction things don’t always go according to plan.
Talking to retailers, carriers, and delivery management companies day-in, day-out, it’s easy to get lost in a world of strategy, planning, and innovation. And so it was, with all of that in mind, I set about a highly unscientific review of shopping online in late 2015, buying, receiving, collecting and returning from some well-known brands to get a sense of how things are on that front-line.
This is not an attempt at pattern spotting, nor an attempt to define how well, or otherwise, a given retailer may be doing; this is just a series of single encounters, anecdotes and observations.
IKEA: The wonderful, everyday
My eldest son recently reached that point where his room needed to undergo a bit of a transformation – from that of an older child into one more suited to a young adult.
Having decided IKEA was a good option for him, based on price and range, he and I set off one evening for north London. As has always been the case with any visit to IKEA, you are struck by the size of the place and by how much time you spend walking round looking for things. That said, it was subsequently very easy to translate what we’d learned in-store into the order we placed online, and the IKEA Family loyalty scheme I signed up for feels like a nice way of tying on- and off-line together.
Ordering was straightforward, although some items had to be very specifically searched for as they weren’t showing up anywhere in the catalogue to begin with. The lead time of 10 days felt a little on the long side, but the SMS alerts (two the day before delivery) and the phone call from the driver to confirm ‘within the hour’ were good.
Apart from attempting to include part of someone else’s order in mine (“but this is your name printed on the label, Mr Fleming!” – it said ‘Freeman’) taking delivery was a breeze, everything was there, and there were no problems.
John Lewis: How many floor managers does it take to issue a refund?
I am a big fan of being able to order online from John Lewis and having items shipped for collection at my local Waitrose, which is what I did when ordering a new laptop (for the same son who is now in possession of a lot of new IKEA bedroom furniture).
One of the keys was loose, however, and so it had to be returned. To the John Lewis store, not the Waitrose it was collected from, as I wanted a straight swap … a replacement laptop, same make and model.
It’s the luck of the drawer when you arrive at a store and can’t find any floor-walkers. But I was eventually directed to the tech support desk, who very quickly established there was a faulty keyboard. I was offered a choice of like-for-like replacement or swapping to something else, which was a nice touch. But like-for-like was what was required.
The store didn’t have any, however. It was decided the fastest way for me to get a replacement would be to be issued with a refund on a gift card, and for the gift card to be used (in store) to buy a new laptop from the John Lewis website, for me to collect the following day from my local Waitrose.
That’s a lot of ‘working out’ the shopper doesn’t really need to see. For although it makes sense, and I could see it made sense, why would I care? When you’re hungry you want to eat, you don’t want to watch the chef cook.
I next had to walk across the shopfloor with the sales attendant to a cash desk, so that he could issue the refund onto a gift card. However, the person manning the sales desk wouldn’t do it without the sanction of someone more senior. So I waited at the cash desk, with the second sales attendant, while the first went off to find a manager, during which time another sales attendant joined the second one to ask what was going on. Shortly thereafter, four John Lewis sales attendants were huddled around the cash register, while I stood waiting for a gift card I didn’t want.
Then it was another walk across the shopfloor to a PC where the first sales attendant and I jointly ordered a laptop to be delivered to my local Waitrose.
OK, maybe I’m being a little harsh. But once again, why subject the shopper to all this behind-the-scenes carry on?
It worked, of course. But it was far from seamless.
Argos: The hare and the tortoise
We wrote a news item here on eDelivery about the launch of Argos Fast Track, which will give you same-day delivery on a range of items. It will also allow you to pay for goods online and pick them up from the store via the Fast Track desk – you eliminate one of the purchase steps of a usual click-and-collect at Argos.
I opted to do this when buying a replacement VoIP headset.
The online purchase felt clunky. There were too many steps involved – selecting which store I wanted to collect from, and specifying I wanted to pay online, it all felt somewhat laborious. Having said that, once I’d done it I was rather gratified by the SMS alert which came through telling me my item was already available for collection, whereupon I hastened to Argos.
The Fast Track signage in the store was somewhat confusing though, and directed me to a sad and lonely corner with no staff and no cash register.
The store itself was pretty empty so it wasn’t hard finding someone to help me. However, Fast Track orders can only be processed via the Fast Track till, I soon discovered. It took two people and two till points to process my order, by which time someone who walked into the store just after me, and had gone to the regular (IE non-Fast Track) queue, had paid for and received their goods sooner than I had mine.
GAP: The wrong trousers
I bought a pair of jeans online from GAP. Actually I bought two pairs – there was a sale on, don’t you know. One pair, however, had to be returned. They were, well, an unusual cut, to say the least.
I returned them in-store, where I was greeted with “that’s an unusual style, isn’t it? I don’t think we carry those.” I felt better about my poor purchasing choice. I got the refund on my card, and the jeans were set aside to be sent back wither they came.
Sole Trader: Fleet of foot
I did that thing … unsure about which of two pairs of trainers I wanted to buy, I ordered both from Sole Trader online, knowing that at least one pair was definitely going back.
When the time came, I took the unloved pair back to my nearest Sole Trader store. While my refund was being processed, I had a nice little chat with the manager about whether he’d put them on the shelf or send them back to the DC.
Had I used PayPal to buy them online, he told me, the refund would have been in my account within 15 minutes. That’s fast.
I was in and out in a flash. Well played Sole Trader.
M&S: Oops I did it again
I bought a laptop bag (see the John Lewis saga above) from M&S. It was £49 in the store, £39 online, with free collection from the store. So I bought it online, and my wife collected it two days later.
When it was unpacked I found a security tag attached to the bag. Groan. Would online stock have a tag fitted? Or is this store stock? And if it’s store stock, why wasn’t it marked down in the store the way it was online..? Anyway, I removed the tag, no harm, no foul.
As I’m writing this, my wife is returning a pair of trousers to the same M&S store because … that’s right, there was a security tag left attached to them when she bought them.
Boden/Collect+: Local shop getting it right for local people
This was a return I did on behalf of my wife. The Boden packaging works as a returns envelope, and there was a pre-paid Collect+ return option.
I walked all of five minutes to my nearest Collect+ shop and handed it to the woman behind the counter, who scanned it and handed me a receipt. I walked back out within a minute.
Frictionless. Just the way it should be.
It is important to remember that all of the above is one man’s limited set of experiences – it is not research; it tells us nothing beyond the superficial, nor is it intended to. This is an arbitrary selection determined by nothing more than serendipity – these were some of the places where I recently shopped. And by ‘recently’ the oldest instance was several months ago and the most recent merely hours ago.
But there’s no getting away from the impact on the overall buying experience of those final few touch points, whether taking delivery, collecting, or returning your purchases. From the care taken by the online grocery picker, to the courtesy of individual courier drivers, all the way to the extent to which order and returns processing systems work smoothly, all leave an impression. In the most part, the shopper is a passive bystander at this juncture and at the mercy of the operations used by the retailer and carrier.
Thankfully for retailers and carriers, those are the parts of the e-commerce puzzle they are able to control, or at the very least influence. Whether they choose to, or not, is perhaps a story for another day.
GAP Store, Castlepoint Shopping Centre, Bournemouth, image copyright Dorsetdude (own work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
Sole Trader store image copyright Scriniary and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/972238