Since I started editing eDelivery I’ve found I don’t buy things online the way I used to. I see things from a whole new perspective. But that’s hardly surprising, is it?
I look at delivery options, I want to see what collection choices are being offered, and I pay more attention to returns policies than anyone probably needs to. I look at labels on boxes. I talk to delivery drivers, and I take note of the differences I encounter as a customer: UPS drivers in their uniforms, in their brown vans that never have a radio playing, the lifestyle courier often chatting on his mobile when he drops something off, who uses several different vehicles and sometimes has one of his kids with him.
I see things through the eyes of a (reasonably) well-informed partial insider.
But as well as all that I’m still a customer, a shopper, and as obsessed as I may have become in the mechanics of the delivery industry, I never stop asking myself “what would this look and feel like to the uninitiated?”
For the last few weeks I’ve been placing regular, weekly grocery orders with Ocado, and because I now live in a two dog household, since Henry the Jack Russell pup arrived in April, I’ve also been ordering things from Fetch, Ocado’s pet goods spin off.
Ordering from Ocado is easy. But that’s true of just about every etailer now; it is, after all, where the focus has been for the last 15 years … making it easy for shoppers to shop.
On my first visit to the Ocado site I imagine I reacted like a lot of suburban middle class types do; I found myself bowled over by the fabulous selections of high end charcuterie, fine wines, and other delicacies on offer. There’s an impressive range on offer from Fetch too, including bow ties for dogs, and collars made by Hunter, the iconic outdoors (particularly wellies) brand. We’re not in Tesco now, Toto.
The Ocado / Fetch proposition is lovely and simple. Pet owners buy a lot of pet food, as well as other items for their cats, dogs, hamsters and whatnot. Pet food in particular tends to be heavy and bulky, and is required on a regular basis. By choosing the same delivery slot for your Fetch and Ocado order you enjoy the convenience of the single doorstep drop, and there’s no delivery charge.
Now, if you were being unkind you might ask how that’s different from the likes of Tesco and Asda where there’s already a decent selection of pet food for online shoppers to add to their orders. Well, for one thing it’s different because you have to order it separately via the Fetch website; not the Ocado site, not the Ocado app. That’s one point of difference, I guess.
Back in April at the eDelivery Expo (EDX16) in Birmingham I had the good fortune to meet, and interview in front of a live audience, Richard Locke, Ocado’s head of general merchandise. He’s a great guy, too. Very knowledgeable, very personable. He went down really well with the EDX16 audience.
He explained that since it moved into non-food sales, Ocado has had do handle more returns – as you’d expect (it has another spin off called Sizzle, which sells cookware, and is about to go into the cosmetics game via a partnership with Marie Claire).
I asked him to explain how a storeless retailer handles returns. Well, he told us all, you simply hand the item in question to the driver next time you get your Ocado delivery. What could be simpler than that? It’s a great way to do things.
As someone who actively enjoys making returns (see the opening remarks I made at the top of this piece) I was secretly pleased when a collar I ordered for Henry turned out to be far too big – this is despite it being described as small – the curse of relative terms.
Despite coming with your Ocado groceries, Fetch items arrive in their own separate packaging – a tough, resealable, plastic envelope. There’s no paperwork though. Unlike the groceries, which are accompanied by an A4 sheet of paper detailing everything ordered, you only get an email notification from Fetch.
No paperwork = no returns form. But that’s ok. I know this is going to be easy … after all, I’m going to be handing it back to the driver next week.
Back to the Fetch site I went, looking for a returns portal. As someone who generally doesn’t like surprises, I find the idea of returns portals rather appealing, and I’m sure if I was a retailer I’d have one; I’d want to know what was coming back before it turned up.
But no, there was no returns portal. I was presented with a choice – call or email to notify Ocado that I want to make a return. Yep, call or email. I opted for the latter, and as it didn’t ask me to specify any particular details, just to send an email, I sent an email. A blank one. Then I realised I was being a bit too literal, and sent another email stating I wish to make a return, quoting the order number, item description, and I even included a link to the collar’s listing on Fetch.
Roughly seven hours after sending my email I got a reply, apologising for the unsatisfactory dog collar (now there’s something I never thought I’d find myself writing about), confirming I would be able to hand the unwanted collar to my next Ocado driver, telling me that the refund would be processed upon receipt of the returned item, and – a little odd this one – asking me how I was.
Seven hours to get a response is pretty good, given it was a Saturday. It did make me wonder who the poor soul answering customer service emails on Saturday evening was and if they were sitting all alone in a call centre somewhere. But no … they can’t have been completely alone, because 15 minutes later I got a second email telling me to disregard the first and that the refund would be issued straight away. And, sure enough, there was a third email confirming the refund. Then, 24 hours later, a fourth telling me the refund had been processed.
But isn’t it funny how a great response can still leave you feeling things could have been handled better?
The whole thing, for all its lovely, slick, easiness, was just a little too disjointed. Ordering from separate sites. Email or call for a returns request. Two separate replies from two different people, one saying one thing and the other over-ruling them. Two auto-generated emails as follow up. I’d be lying if I said it hadn’t removed some of the shine from what has been a fantastic ecommerce experience so far. It’s not 2005 anymore – this stuff should be joined up, seamless, automated. After all this is Ocado, famous for its cutting edge tech, its robots, its automation.
I really do believe that the human touch is a fundamental part of getting retail logistics right. In the DC the staff are the last people to touch something before the shopper unpacks it. The care, or lack of, they take is reflected in the condition of that unpacked item. Similarly, the professionalism of a driver reflects well on the retailer they are delivering for. That one works in reverse too.
But standardising and automating basic functions – like data processing, order processing, and other transactional based interactions – ought to be commonplace.
In the dotcom boom and bust of 15+ years ago, one of my favourite online urban legends was the one about a certain bulk buying website that spent millions on front end dev, and on advertising encouraging lots of shoppers to register to buy a particular item (a washing machine, for example) then placing a single order for everyone, thereby getting a significant discount off the RRP. It worked brilliantly. However, they’d not thought much about returns handling and ended up running their returns off a single Excel spreadsheet. The chaos that followed led to many unhappy shoppers resorting to legal recourse to get their refunds, which damaged the business’s reputation and ultimately contributed to its downfall.
How much of that was true I’ll never know, but I heard it from people who ought to, so I’ve always assumed there was a grain of truth and a pinch of embellishment – like all the best stories. I can’t see history repeating itself to the same catastrophic extent here in 2016. But it does strike me that basic functions that aren’t being properly automated have future headache written all over them.